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Not So Much a Business . . .

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At the top of some concrete stairs, in a slightly run-down area of London near Sadler’s Wells, is a room with a magic carpet, otherwise known as Eland Books. Open an Eland book and you are miraculously transported to another time and place – imperial India perhaps, or sixteenth-century Turkey, Ireland in the 1950s, or Germany just before the Second World War.

I was sitting in the bathtub when they rang at my door on October 22nd, 1939. The char had not yet arrived; I thought it was the postman and called out that he should wait a minute. They yelled back ‘Hurry up. Here is the police’ . . .

That’s Arthur Koestler in France, where he’s at work on Darkness at Noon and about to be imprisoned as an enemy alien.

There was no sound at all in the room save the whispering beat of the music and the slithering of the boy’s feet across the floor. Men sat in rapt attention, light running silver down the side of a face or the jutting archipelago of a nose . . .

That’s the Turkish writer Irfan Orga, transfixed by the erotic dance of a young Yürük nomad boy in the remote High Taurus. The attic office seems filled with such haunting voices, its long bookshelves lined with evocative names and titles – Golden Earth by Norman Lewis, A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford, The Weather in Africa by Martha Gellhorn – and other authors less well known.

As well as books, the office (shared with a commuting friend) also contains a discreetly concealed bath and quite a large dog. But once you’ve met the firm’s founders, Rose Baring and Barnaby Rogerson, you wouldn’t expect it to be conventional. They both have a feeling of freedom and fresh air about them, as if they’ve only just thrown off their coats after returning from some adventurous journey. They laugh easily too, as they tuck into their coffee and Jaffa Cakes, in the way of people who are doin

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At the top of some concrete stairs, in a slightly run-down area of London near Sadler’s Wells, is a room with a magic carpet, otherwise known as Eland Books. Open an Eland book and you are miraculously transported to another time and place – imperial India perhaps, or sixteenth-century Turkey, Ireland in the 1950s, or Germany just before the Second World War.

I was sitting in the bathtub when they rang at my door on October 22nd, 1939. The char had not yet arrived; I thought it was the postman and called out that he should wait a minute. They yelled back ‘Hurry up. Here is the police’ . . .
That’s Arthur Koestler in France, where he’s at work on Darkness at Noon and about to be imprisoned as an enemy alien.
There was no sound at all in the room save the whispering beat of the music and the slithering of the boy’s feet across the floor. Men sat in rapt attention, light running silver down the side of a face or the jutting archipelago of a nose . . .
That’s the Turkish writer Irfan Orga, transfixed by the erotic dance of a young Yürük nomad boy in the remote High Taurus. The attic office seems filled with such haunting voices, its long bookshelves lined with evocative names and titles – Golden Earth by Norman Lewis, A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford, The Weather in Africa by Martha Gellhorn – and other authors less well known. As well as books, the office (shared with a commuting friend) also contains a discreetly concealed bath and quite a large dog. But once you’ve met the firm’s founders, Rose Baring and Barnaby Rogerson, you wouldn’t expect it to be conventional. They both have a feeling of freedom and fresh air about them, as if they’ve only just thrown off their coats after returning from some adventurous journey. They laugh easily too, as they tuck into their coffee and Jaffa Cakes, in the way of people who are doing the thing they enjoy, despite depressing demands for high discounts, and the fact that the cost of ware - housing is rising to astronomical levels. Before they started publishing, both we re leading happy and carefree lives as travel writers, but then, as Barnaby says, ‘we had two daughters, and that did slightly ground us’. Not long after, at a lecture, he met someone who had edited a ‘fantastic 1820s trans-Saharan journal’ (Hugh Clapperton’s Difficult and Dangerous Roads – still on the Eland list) which had been rejected by six publishers. And since his own passion is North Africa (about which he continues to write), he decided to publish it. He even covered his costs. The next year – 1999 – he published four more books. They called the new imprint Sickle Moon, and after watching Barnaby doing things, as he says ‘not very efficiently’, Rose came on board. For twenty years John Hatt of Eland Books had been reissuing the kind of classic travel literature that Ba r n a by longed to publish himself and in 2000 he wrote to John, telling him what an inspiration his list had been. John replied that he was looking for someone to take it ove r. It was a wonderful stroke of luck. ‘I think that without it the energy would have evaporated,’ says Barnaby. ‘Certainly the money would.’ Though the focus of Eland & Sickle Moon is travel, ‘spirit of place’ would be a more accurate description – books that take you to a country’s heart, encompassing both novels and non-fiction, and poetry too. ‘Look at Graham Greene,’ says Barnaby, ‘he wrote so perfectly about place in his fiction and so badly in his travel writing, whereas Norman Lewis was a brilliant travel writer, but you wouldn’t think his fiction was written by the same man.’ So, as well as the accounts of such intrepid travellers as Mungo Park, who crossed West Africa in the late eighteenth century, the list includes novels and memoirs which have this vivid quality – Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, for example, and Oswald Wynd’s heartrending love story The Ginger Tree, set in early twentieth-century Japan. Barnaby and Rose divide the running of the business between them and, like most small publishers, they learned as they went along, with some hand-holding from their kindly printer. But they didn’t listen when an accountant told them to ‘take the Eland list, dump two-thirds and keep the six books that are working in a mass market way’. On the contrary, they are dedicated to keeping the whole wonderful list in print – a kind of two-man United Nations. ‘It’s curious that when people travel,’ says Barnaby, ‘they can’t sustain a simplistic hatred of a country ever again. And what a challenge that has become, as more people travel and fewer people communicate.’ Rose deals with production and design, which are done to very high standards – Eland books are printed on fine paper and have a classically beautiful look. Before they had the office she scanned and typeset all the books at home, on a computer at the end of the bed (‘I hated it humming away there. I suspected that even in my sleep, waves of Eland publishing we re going through my head.’). Now some of the inputting is done in India. Rose can send a book out and get the entire thing back by e-mail, accurately typed, a week later. Barnaby does the rest, being, as Rose says, ‘brilliant at chatting people up’ (‘I’m spin and Rose is substance,’ says Barnaby) – talking to booksellers and distributors and journalists, keeping his ear to the ground for interesting ideas among the network of writers and travellers who regard Eland Books as a kind of spiritual home-from-home. And of course they both read a lot. Though in basic agreement about what makes good writing, Rose is more exacting, says Barnaby, and a brilliant editor. In fact, there’s not a great deal of editing to do, since most of their authors are dead. Other publishers sometimes envy them the fact that their books come ready-made, but it has its disadvantages since there’s no author to help publicize the book. Both acknowledge that publishing is becoming more mass market and that the bookselling business is going inexorably towards ‘Pile them high and sell them cheap’. But they are not downhearted. There are new export sales opportunities opening up, and travellers – armchair and otherwise – clearly love their books, often ordering the entire list for wedding presents, special occasions or a holiday house in Spain. ‘This is the world one lives in,’ says Barnaby, ‘and it has many advantages. Printing has got much quicker, typesetting is much easier, and you can pass on so much of your work to skilled part-timers. A generation ago you had to have a lot of capital to set up an office and get the skilled staff.’ The staff at the moment consists of Miranda, a graduate trainee (‘the best proofreader ever’) and Steph, who comes in to do publicity, the thing they find hardest to do themselves. ‘We’re so emotionally connected to all the books’, says Rose, ‘that we don’t want to feel rejected.’ But though they’d like to be able to afford some permanent full-time help to give them a break, they don’t really want to get any bigger because they are passionate about quality control. They’re happy as they are. Occasionally, it’s true, Rose does get up in the morning – and she gets up early, sometimes going in to the office at dawn – saying thatthey’ve just got to make some money to repay all the effort they’ve put in. But then Barnaby reminds her that it’s a life as well as a business. And after all, there aren’t many jobs where you really look forward to going into the office on Monday morning. ‘We’ve just got to think of ways of adapting,’ says Barnaby. ‘I’d never give up. I want to be buried with Eland books piled up around me.’ ‘Yes, we’ll make you a pyre of Eland books,’ says Rose, and that makes them both laugh.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Hazel Wood 2004


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