I met Michael Curran, the man behind Tangerine Press, at an unfussy Peckham bar in late November. The former builder turned book-binder was hosting the biannual Uncorrected Book Fair: a rotating assortment of indie publishers that produce works mainstream publishers cannot, will not, or do not want to print. He stood modestly above a selection of beautiful, hand-bound editions of literary ‘misfits, mavericks and misanthropes’ with a bottle of lager propped almost awkwardly in his hand. He had arranged, for the third time, a confluence of London’s most obscure, esoteric or experimental publishers, yet he chatted to browsers as if his success was really some happy, oddly recurrent accident. Inadvertently or not, however, Michael has built an extended network of independent culture manufacturers that not only strengthen each other but also threaten to transform how Britain reads, writes and lives.
Michael has a way of talking about his work as if it’s some wonderful mistake. He had began binding books over 20 years ago but mostly in his spare time; he was previously making a living ‘working for bastards’ as a self-employed carpenter before a serious back injury put him out of work: “I lost all feeling in my left leg from the knee down, then the whole leg, I had to reconsider my future. I had plenty of time though – I was laid up for 3 months, in and out of hospital, dropping six Tramadol every morning just to make the day bearable:”
‘I had no option, I couldn’t be a carpenter any more – I thought “what am I going to do?” I was 43 and thought, “well I’ve got the books – I can have a go at that.” I knew it had to be a proper business though, that I would have to source my materials better and I’d need people to see me as a publisher rather than just a book-binder. So I started doing paperback editions of books with full distribution.’
I asked Michael about his influences: did he feel he was continuing a uniquely English tradition of small, subversive hand-produced publishing that stretches back to Wycliffe’s Bible, to Blake, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement? Perhaps unconsciously, he said, but it was the hyper-small, highly-controversial presses in 1960s and 70s UK and America that really pushed him to become a publisher:
‘It was a period of properly independent publishing unafraid of challenging obscenity laws.’
‘It was a really mad time – there were rigorous independents like John Calder in this country and others in the states that were getting sued left right and centre you know for any book – William Burroughs for example – they were signing these mad contracts where they accepted full responsibility when police began raiding bookshops that gets raided – I really look to that time.’
Michael was, by his own admission, late to reading: ‘I hadn’t read a book cover to cover until I was 21 – I just couldn’t engage with it until suddenly I found a book and started reading properly,’ I asked him what the book was: ‘American Psycho – it blew my mind! I thought “shit, this is dangerous,” I didn’t realise writing could be like that.’
‘It got banned in book shops even in the 90s where supposedly all the obscenity laws got thrown out the window. I loved that side of it, people were saying – my friends – you have to read this book, it’s a mad book.’
Michael has run into trouble himself in 2010 after collaborating with L-13 Industrial Warehouse to publish the poetry of the provocative artist and musician Billy Childish. The inaugural edition of The Un-corrected Billy Childish provoked court action with Penguin books for its subversive use of their copyrighted logos. He had only just began publishing in earnest and had just released his first project: a stunning re-issue of the poetry of William Wantling [pic], a heroin-addicted veteran of the Korean War: ‘I thought “I had already published an obscure dead American but now I wanted to publish an obscure living Englishman.”
I contacted Steve Lowe of L-13 for context and he remembers the ensuing trouble wryly. “They banned us from selling the book in any bookshops and put in a court order to confiscate and destroy all our copies.” It was then, he had an idea:“I thought, if they were going to destroy all the books we could save them the trouble – we could get Billy to hold a book burning, with all its Nazi associations.”
I asked Michael what he had planned for his future: ‘I’m at a bit of a crossroads like, Robert Johnson. I love doing everything myself but I feel like I need to get my books out there, start pushing the writers more, pushing for reviews, get some proper help partly with promotions because I really want to do these writers more justice than I can on my own.’ He remembers some advice given to him by John Martin who used to publish Bukowski and other avant-garde writers: keep it small, keep it independent and keep going.
‘The small independent press scene in England can get quite cliquey and snobby but I want people to know: if you have something in mind and you’re convinced that it’s the right thing to do, then you’ve got to do it’ he says.
‘My advice for someone thinking about publishing’ he adds, ‘is that you have to think long and hard – it’s a responsibility. It’s got to be good, and you’ve got to be convinced. If someone pushed you into a corner and said “what are you doing publishing that crap?” you need to know you can defend it, know what i mean?’