I vividly recall my first encounter with a Faber hardback. It was Christmas, I was eight, and my aunt bestowed upon me Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I knew not who Old Possum was, nor who this mysterious T.S. Eliot was, but what I did know was that there was something in it that lured me further into its tantalising web of feline intrigue. Gangster cats, jazz hands cats, grumpy cats, cats who liked nothing more than to laze all day (who else relates?) – it had it all. I will admit that much of the verbose, playful language went over my eight-year-old bonce, but Old Possum became my first window into the fantastical world of poetry, and just what words could do. Even if I didn’t understand everything, didn’t know what “quorum” meant or didn’t know how to pronounce Deuteronomy, the rhythms could captivate. It was like music.
I was the sort of eight-year-old who would pore over a whole book, a whole TV show’s credits, the entire liner notes of an album, to know as much as I could. I wanted to know who the executive producer was, who played the mandolin on track seven, and, as a certified dates fiend, just what year was this published? As such, it was not lost on me that Old Possum was a Faber book. Or rather, a Faber & Faber book. TWO Fabers! Even better.
Now, please spare a moment to indulge a Faber art direction enthusiast. (That, or skip to the next paragraph. Okay, the one after that.) My copy of Old Possum was housed in a gorgeous, glossy dust-jacket; plumb in the middle of the cover was an elegant white rectangle bordered by two black lines; this quadrangular plate contained: the author name (capitalised and bold) and the title (serif font, italicised) separated by a stylish black line. Then, underneath, a jaunty colour illustration of a pair of flamboyant mogs by Nicholas Bentley. And all around it, like luxury wrapping paper, were rows and rows of Faber logos… the two lower-case fs – ff – like literary sentinels, bedecking the entire page. Old Possum’s background was a vibrant yellow, the same colour as the cats’ eyes and their hats, the colour of fun, adventure, abandon.
When I started secondary school a few years later, I was, as you can imagine, somewhat overjoyed to see another Faber poetry collection in the school library – and, lo and behold, it had the same design! But instead of a loud yellow, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was white and red, the colour of blood and snow, its illustration of a vase of wilting roses hinting at the morbid yearning within.
Ariel was second to Old Possum in sparking my interest in poetry, the intense images in Plath’s writing betraying a complex mind. She used blunt, brusque one-word titles – “Cut,” “Edge,” “Elm” – and wrote of mannequins, yew-trees, fog, beekeepers, and death. She perfectly evoked the intensifying isolation of a London winter in the early 1960s, of frozen pipes and icy windows. And all the time I came back to that haunting cover image – the scarlet flowers and the rows and rows of Faber logos. Faber, to me, became a byword for quality writing that ignited my imagination, piqued my interest in other topics, and, in the case of Ariel, almost compelled me to school library theft (but it didn’t! I bought this copy years later from eBay! I’m not lying, you are!)
Every time I would see one of those Faber poetry collections, my heart would sing. (Some people do shoes, I do Faber anthologies.) I rescued Ted Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain and Wolfwatching (hello, creepy Japanese netsuke on the cover) from the indignity of a library book sale in my teens, and my A-level copy of Philip Larkin’s High Windows is now bescrawled, in pencil, with such insights as “death renewal change age religion.” If it was published by Faber, I would think, then it must be good.
My passion for Faber poetry has continued unabated, although I now will relent and admit there are other publishing houses. But it was Faber that brought me T.S. Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays, studied to within an inch of its life at university and, I am sad to say, now with a spine that resembles a nonagenarian’s forehead. (Anyone that knows me knows I am NOT a spine-creaser.) It was also Faber that brought me Hugo Williams’ I Knew the Bride and Alice Oswald’s Dart. I also heartily recommend Simon Armitage’s contemporary translations of the medieval epics Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. And just this Christmas gone, I received another Faber hardback, this time a collection of Kate Bush’s song lyrics, How to be Invisible. (‘I’m a Faber bore aren’t I,’ may or may not have crossed my mind mid-unwrapping.)
But if you thought, like I did for some years, that Faber just published poetry (oh, and Ted Hughes’ children’s fiction classic The Iron Man, never forget), you would be mistaken. For Faber publishes a veritable wealth of books, from fiction to teen to children’s to non-fiction. You only have to glance at a bestseller list or awards longlist to see the quality of fiction published by Faber – I like Banana Yoshimoto’s bizarre Kitchen and Sebastian Barry’s incendiary American Civil War epic Days Without End. There are also novels by Leila Slimani, Kazuo Ishiguro, Barbara Kingsolver, Rachel Cusk, Hanif Kureishi, and of course Sally Rooney’s Costa-winning Normal People and the Booker-winning Milkman by Anna Burns, mainstays of any 2019 reading list. And what about the cute new Faber Stories that have emerged this year? (https://www.faber.co.uk/blog/faber-90th-anniversary/) Faber is looking pretty good for 90, it must be said. (I take back what I said about a nonagenarian’s forehead.)
Faber also introduced me (via the songs of PJ Harvey) to the haunting Southern Gothic short stories of Flannery O’Connor, as well as Max Porter’s powerful Grief is the Thing with Feathers (thanks Victoria for the recommendation), which blurs the lines between poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and takes Ted Hughes’ avant-garde Faber collection Crow as a jumping off point. If Crow was an album, it would be a Miles Davis psych-jazz double LP – and on the subject of music, Faber is the home to some of my favourite music non-fiction, specifically Barney Hoskyns’ biography of Tom Waits, Lowside of the Road, and former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine’s two luminous memoirs, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys and To Throw Away Unopened.
So while Faber may now have done away with those iconic poetry covers (sob) that I didn’t just obsessively fan-boy about earlier, they have NOT done away with their commitment to the best writing – in any genre, any style. If you haven’t read a Faber book before, consider it your moral duty to do so immediately. I will provide the link to our catalogue for you right now: https://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/librarycatalogue Which one will you choose?!
Do you have a fave Faber? A Fabourite? (Sorry…) Do tell in the comments.