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Lauren Delapenha is in the building.

What is remarkable about this sentence is not Lauren Delapenha nor the obnoxious and unnecessary use of the third person, but the building. The lionshead knocker at 17 Kings Ave seemed reminiscent of Narnia, or Rastafarianism. When a smiling Jeremy Poynting opened the door and invited me inside, I found a place which was neither mythical land nor mystical religion but which was no less of a world in its own right.

Or, as I was about to discover, several worlds, boxed up and delightfully overflowing in the downstairs storeroom. For over three decades, this slanting three-storied building – in Leeds – has churned out over 400 books which trace the many-coloured arcs of Caribbean, Black British, and southeast Asian thought. In the past, this churning was quite literal, as two offset-litho printing presses downstairs terrorised the team for a good long while before digital outsourced printing services came to the rescue. As an aspiring penniless poet, I know a little about the agonies and ecstasies of making worlds out of words on a page. What I don’t know is what happens to them when I send them out into the far larger, realer world outside my hard drive, and this is what I had come to Peepal Tree to find out. The goal of my next three weeks as an intern here is therefore to understand how these stories are perfected, printed, and promoted through that frightening mechanism known as publishing. In return, I intend to offer such services as this blog post, my data entry prowess, and thoughtfully-timed remarks on the weather.

First, Jeremy and Hannah sat me down in my very own swivel chair and spoke to me as though I were a real human being instead of an intern. Within minutes, I was offered a hot drink1 and a flapjack – that oaty English pastry which I’ve never really understood, but this was a good flapjack, a moist and apply flapjack, a flapjack lovingly made by Jeremy’s wife Janet (who, if she ever reads this, should big up herself and open a bakery). But most importantly, this was a free flapjack, and to give an intern free food is to secure her affection forever. I decided on the spot that there was almost nothing I would not do for these people.

What I actually ended up doing on my first day was, well, much of nothing. The clock on the couch in the upstairs corner of the Peepal Tree office confirmed this. By that clock’s measure, I did a sum total of approximately 7 minutes of actual work on my first day.2 When Jeremy politely pointed out that I could leave, the clock indicated that several hours had passed since my freakishly punctual arrival. Time in this office consisted not of hours, but of conversations and observations so intriguing and idiosyncratic that I lost track of its passing.

For example, thanks to Jeremy, I am now fully versed in the tumultuous political history of Guyana in the 70s and 80s.

I have also been advised not to buy the chicken from a certain local butcher because they take the frozen birds out to the back step and set a blowtorch on them until they thaw.

By contrast, a different establishment serves up a mean masala fish. If I am a good intern, I will get to taste it.

We spoke about the difference between distributing books in the UK versus the US, and the enduring difficulties of doing so in the Caribbean.

We discussed critical essay submissions which were painfully semicolonised by overcomplex abstractions; we discussed their proclivity for the word ‘problematise’.

We also discussed, in considerable detail, the liquefaction versus mummification of office desk mice.3 (The living, squeaking kind, not the computer accessory.)

We discussed Yorkshire glottal /glo’al/ stops.

We discussed various forms of medieval execution.

Deadlines, and the utility of ‘pre-emptive forgetting’, as Hannah put it.

Phone lines, and their tapping in the 80s.

Poetic lines, and who edits them. This turns out to be Jeremy.

And the copy editing? As it were, also Jeremy.

But, but what about the indexing?

By this point even I could get the point: small publishing equals big, and varied, and many, many responsibilities.

At this point a strong wind rattled the windows and I made a thoughtfully-timed comment about the weather.

And then there are the books which outnumber the staff in this office by a ratio of ~30,000:3.2. Spilling off the main bookshelf and piled up in stacks, the books populate this world as fully and haphazardly as the people who wrote them. When my brain goes soft, as it often does both before and after lunch, I spin around in my very own swivel chair and scan the spines. Consider titles like As Flies to Whatless Boys, Tell No-One About This, England and Nowhere, Feed Me the Sun, and Progeny of Air. Each of these promises a kind of reckoning. In addition to learning how books are put together, I have the notion that this internship could also teach me how, and what, to read.

At frequent intervals during the course of the afternoon, Jeremy asked if I knew of such and such an author. This line of questioning was usually accompanied by pulling a title off the shelf, and then another, which was technically better, and then a third by a friend of his, regrettably deceased, and so on until and another half-hour had passed and I was surrounded by various anthologies and memoirs and creole dictionaries. I tended to blink slowly and swallow deeply; such moments never quite seemed opportune for me to remark yet again upon the weather. As it dawned on him that he was speaking to a Jamaican who knew appallingly little of her own political and literary history, Jeremy neither shamed nor defenestrated me. Instead he calmly explained the essentials like Anthony McNeill, Savacou, and the Caribbean Artists Movement. By the end of the afternoon I had a fat bibliography of suggested reading on everything from civility to piracy to the transatlantic slave trade. All this talk of tyranny led us, naturally, to discuss the iconic slush pile. I decided to ask The Question – that singular query for which every creative writing postgraduate student would sell a semi-vital organ.

How do you decide what to publish?

I was expecting to hear about instinctive gut-feelings, or something about profit margins. Instead, Jeremy said that he published those things which continued the conversation in any way which seemed important. This was it. This made sense. This focus on fostering human connection through literary conversation explains why Peepal Tree goes to such lengths to keep esoteric, mostly-forgotten works in print. This is a publishing community with strong roots in ‘peripheral’ pasts, which truly believes in the enduring importance of traditionally marginalised narratives and the people who preserve them through literature. And it is precisely the strength of these roots which enables them to go out on a limb, to take bold creative risks for the sake of reader and writer alike. Publishing seemed to me to be a rather ruthless chomping machine, and those who have handled an offset-litho press will know that this is still quite literally true. But in just a few hours, Hannah and Jeremy had shown me an alternative, entirely human side of publishing – yet another world. Provided there’s lunch, I’m keen to explore it.

1 Choices included coffee, lapsang souchong, odd herbal stuff which visiting writers seem to like, or whisky.
2 I was soon to learn, however, that this clock had surrealist, rather apocalyptic tendencies. Early afternoon hours suggest lunch, but as Hannah obligingly explained circa 4pm, she and Jeremy didn’t tend to eat lunch. Then, circa 3:52pm, the sun set, which is to say that the sky darkened only a few shades from an unbudging grey to a black which blotted out all adjectives I’ve attempted to use to describe it. The fact of early winter sunsets, like surrealism in general, tends to disturb my digestion, so it is perhaps a rather good thing I hadn’t had lunch.
3 The key difference is in the level of ambient moisture.

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