Serpent’s Tales with Pete Ayrton and Ruth Petrie

20 April 2016

Pete Ayrton, founder and former publisher, and Ruth Petrie, long time managing editor, look back on thirty years of books and bedlam with these anecdotes, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Pete AyrtonSubcomandante Marcos & Paco Taibo and the donkey.
In 2006 we published a crime novel which was a collaboration between Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and the Mexican crime novelist Paco Taibo II. It was written in alternating chapters. As Marcos lived in hiding in the hills of Chiapas, and Taibo in Mexico City the novel would travel back and forth between the writers on the back of a donkey. Each would add
their chapter and send the donkey on its way.

Christening the carpet
We published John Agard, the poet, and held a recital at Waterstones Earls Court. The shop had just been renovated, and had a new carpet. Agard was born in Guyana and in his speech, glass in hand, said that it was Guyanese tradition to bless a new space by pouring red wine on the floor, as the staff looked on in horror …

Pelecanos comes to town
George Pelecanos came over for his first UK book tour. I put him up in a shabby chic Greek Cypriot hotel on Mornington Crescent which had a restaurant on the ground floor. He spent a night there and when I picked him up the next morning he was horrified – ‘there’s no fucking lock on the door and no ensuite!’ He did his events or whatever press was scheduled and I took him back to the hotel. Next day when I went to pick him up again, he was sitting in the restaurant, with the hotel cat on his knee purring away, as the matriarch of the business fussed over him and fed him yoghurt with honey. After a shaky beginning, he loved every minute of it.

Jimmy Boyle’s launch for Hero of the UnderworldRuth Petrie
Jimmy Boyle was was a convicted murderer (he maintains his innocence) turned sculptor turned novelist. He had a sculptor’s affliction caused by dust in the eye and the story goes that his doctor told him he had sculptor’s eye (?), and could only drink champagne. Anyway at some point he’s at a dinner, where another guest is a champagne producer and over the course of the dinner, Jimmy wangles sponsorship from this champagne producer. The book is launched at Bookmarks socialist bookshop and Jimmy phones up his sponsor asking if they can supply champagne – which they do, along with waiting staff in white aprons and monogrammed glasses. Literally champagne socialism.

Meeting Jelinek in Munich
Elfriede Jelinek lived in Vienna but her husband was based in Munich – they spent a week a month together and when I needed to see her on business, she was due to be in Munich. We met for lunch at an open air restaurant frequented by Munich business types. At one point I noticed two goths standing in the restaurant staring at Elfriede. They approached the table. I was starting to feel somewhat nervous when they said they wanted to thank Jelinek – ‘if it hadn’t been for your wonderful plays and books we’d have gone fucking crazy.’

Translating Catherine Millet
At Catherine Millet book events, the audiences were predominantly women and I would often have to step in to translate her French into English. I’m no prude, but her audience asked very personal questions which really stretched my vocabulary. And then occasionally a man would turn up and ask Catherine – do you not remember me? I’m the German Student on page 73!