Caught by the River

Ripped and Torn: The Birth of Rough Trade Books

27th August 2018

Adelle Stripe delves into the first run of releases from a new and revolutionary publishing house.

Rough Trade Books is the new publishing wing of Rough Trade, recently established by Nina Hervé in 2018 to bring the same radical spirit to the world of book publishing.

These inaugural editions – comprising twelve pamphlets of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, comics, illustrations, photography and interviews – mainline into counter-culture with a choice of authors including Melissa-Lee Houghton, Ana da Silva, Joe Dunthorne, Babak Ganjei, Jon Savage, Olly Todd and Daniel Blumberg. They are available through selected retail outlets and via a subscription service, which also includes exclusive subscriber-only content, event invites and bonus material.

It’s impossible to provide a comprehensive review of each edition here, but I have randomly selected a few to discuss, and have laid them out on my dusty desk in the style of a tarot spread, as is the current fashion amongst the chattering classes.

It comes as no surprise that David Keenan and Sophy Hollington’s To Run Wild In It: A Handbook of Autonomic Tarot is the first to be pulled from the brown paper bag. Hollington’s lino prints are a revelation, and feature disparate occultist imagery from fish skeletons, cobwebs and sex toys to high-heeled shoes, masks, serpents, scalpels and bathroom sinks. They provide the perfect accompaniment to Keenan’s experimental text which meanders through selected cards, and ranges from the erotic to profoundly moving recollections of grief. The standard of Keenan’s prose is exceptional and provides a curious glam-punk portal into his previous novel, This is Memorial Device.

Jenn Pelly & Priests’ Nothing Feels Natural is an abridged edition of the zine that originally accompanied Priests’ debut LP. Featuring a series of interviews conducted with the band in Washington DC, the shocking pink cover hints at the punk content within.  Discussing writers such as Mina Loy, Valerie Solanas and Eileen Myles through to musical influences such as Nicki Minaj, Destroy all Monsters and Black Flag, this series of interviews with smart, sharp band members provides an enlightening view of politics and feminism in 2016.

The Last Night of the Leamington Licker is an imagined account of the final night of Randy Turpin, a mixed-race boxer who experienced brief fame in 1951 as Middleweight Champion (and defeater of Sugar Ray Robinson) only to be overturned by the same opponent 64 days later. Kirk Lake reveals how a bankrupt Turpin spends his final days in obscurity, running a failing transport café in Leamington Spa, and dies by his own hand at the age of 38.  This impossibly sad story is well crafted and gives an insight into the stratospheric rise and tragic fall of the “64 Day Hero”.

Combing free verse, prose-poetry and litany, Salena Godden’s Pessimism for Lightweights is a visceral approach to resistance poetry. Rooted in live performance, “Salena Saliva” covers themes from menstrual blood, troubled poets and raw fish through to racism, community, and domestic violence. One was performed at the Women’s March in 2018, to 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square, another, Courage is a Muscle, debuted at Downing Street. As with Godden’s previous work, there is a raw, explosive energy to each poem and it’s impossible not to hear her voice boldly pronouncing “You should see what I made red / You should see me, see me / See RED”.

The final selection, and my own personal favourite, is Lorena Lohr’s Blue Springs. The British-Canadian photographer has travelled through the American Southwest to document the landscapes and character of this region’s urban spaces. The Formica surfaces and pale hues of faded diners and motels capture the vastness and desolation of the area, yet there is glamour in the wood panelling and velvet interiors of old cars which signifies the wealth that once existed. Shot on 35mm colour film, the images of Hispanic areas in El Paso are particularly revealing. Reminiscent of William Eggleston or David Lynch, Lohr’s photographs of commercial signage are loaded with melancholic nostalgia; these fading neon graphics once represented the future. They resonate with the outsider fiction of Willy Vlautin or Lucia Berlin, reflecting the slow embers of the 20th century American Dream gradually fading out into the wilderness.

Flawlessly designed by Craig Oldham, this new collection by Rough Trade Books is every bit as valuable as the coveted Rough Trade singles, harnessing the spirit of DIY in each moreish edition. Using type transfers and stamps, each piece of the design, from brown paper bags to stickers, bookmarks and pamphlets, fit together over a palette of bright colours. There is an industrial feel to each edition, practical, workman-like and utilitarian on the outside, yet within each pamphlet is a dizzying array of contemporary literature and imagery. They are the antithesis of publishing’s traditional design – and connect perfectly with Rough Trade’s underground roots.


The first run of Rough Trade Books pamphlets is out now, and available to buy here.

Salena Godden will read alongside as yet unreleased Rough Trade Books authors Thomas Morris and Richard King on our stage at next month’s Good Life Experience.

Adelle Stripe is the author of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, and is published by Fleet.