Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

How our Lagan dream survived to its coming of age

Poet and critic: Gerald Dawe
Poet and critic: Gerald Dawe

I helped found the small literary publisher Lagan Press – depending on memory and the reckoning – 23 years ago. Tonight sees the relaunch of the company as a multi-platform publisher. The shindig will also mark its merger with Londonderry's Verbal Arts Centre.

The evening, for me, is certain to be one filled with reflection.

The early-1990s ... Though even then leaving my twenties behind and nominally advertising manager of politics magazine Fortnight, I was emotionally hanging on to being an honorary student, clutching my gentleman's 2:2.

It was a time of extended slacker innocence, and of technological wonder. I remember staring open-mouthed at Fortnight's first Apple Mac, with its tiny black-and-white screen and sickly yellow casing. While the internet was still the talk of mad scientists and mobiles were the size of chichi bricks, the future was undoubtedly here. How different from those student poetry publications with which I had been involved. Printers with a compositor perched like Mr Sulu behind consoles of blinking lights, galleys, reset lines of corrections, cutting and pasting down pages on mark-up sheets. Now all of that was in a magic box.

The official story is that Lagan Press came to be after a conversation with poet and critic Gerald Dawe in the back bar of Lavery's. The truth was that the house was born in an Apple Mac trunk.

Lagan had only two 'rules'. We were unashamedly a northern house and the books were not to make money. On rule two Lagan surpassed wildest expectations.

Indeed, Lagan would have long been consigned to the history books without the Arts Council.

But, still, it was fun. Working on the borrowed equipment in Fortnight's offices, the first book rolled off the press: Gerald Dawe's How's The Poetry Going? (Naturally, the technical page bore the legend that the author was actually 'Gerlad Dawe', but hey ho.)

Those first glints of youthful idealism in my eyes have dimmed.

But, for all the barnacles of cynicism, I would just like to say that, in spite of all the cursing and badmouthing, anxiety attacks and friendship-shattering rows, being involved with Lagan has been intensely satisfying – albeit in a hard-to-see-at-first-glance way.

Over two decades, it produced nigh-on 200 books, brought on new poets and novelists and rediscovered figures such as Robert Greacen, Roy McFadden, Norman Dugdale and Joseph Tomelty.

But nothing stands still forever. With the advent of the internet and books on phones, Kindles and iPads, our world is no longer the same.

Which is where our new relationship with Verbal Arts Centre comes in. It is an array of contrasts and synergies: Derry-Belfast, professionalism-amateur enthusiasm, competence and, er, anyway.

But the truth is even simpler than that: it secures the future. In the 23 years since that conversation in Lavery's, publishing has changed, begging the question: what is a publisher for?

The core thing a publisher publishes is a statement: we believe in this writer.

Publishing today means not just publishing books and hoping punters will buy them. Rather, it means helping to build a community of the imagination; of putting an ever-greater emotional investment into writers.

Promoting. Branding. Marketing. Scary words for the literary publisher, but essential today if a press wants to demonstrate a fundamental belief in the writer.

When Lagan Press started, the revolution arrived in a box. Today, the revolution is everywhere.

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