Writings for Mike
Mike Hart, 1948-2002
Mike Hart was a bookseller who really knew and loved books. He was a great supporter of new writing and of contemporary poetry in particular. Tom Raworth has written that Mike was a powerhouse for poetry during his years at Compendium. In his 20 years at Compendium bookshop in Camden Town he was the guy at the front desk that would always be able to tell you what was going on in the poetry scene – who was giving a reading, who had a new book out, what was happening with the small independent presses. And almost invariably Mike would introduce you to some author you’d never heard of but whose writing was just what you wanted. Ivor Cutler wrote of one such occasion when Mike introduced him to a book that was so exhilarating that it reminded him why he started writing in the first place. A great many people had the same experience with Mike – being reminded ourselves of why we became readers and why we continue to read.
The aim of this space on the internet is to provide an opportunity for people to remember Mike. A growing and living remembering of Mike through writing.
Please feel free to email Peter Manson (see here for email address) with your memories and tributes to Mike. They will be posted here as received.
Gary Bell | cris cheek | Adrian Clarke | Peter Feeley | Alec Finlay
Glenn Gossling | Scott McGowan | Peter Middleton | Tom O’Hagan
Simon Perril | Tom Raworth | Jamie Sherry | Robert Sheppard | David Toop
Since the closure of Compendium, for a variety of reasons I’ve been pretty much out of the loop as far as the things it championed are concerned, hence I’m only just learning of Mike’s passing. Like others who have expressed themselves rather more eloquently than I, Mike had a very real impact on my life. In the late 80s/early 90s I was writing my Masters dissertation on Don DeLillo, at a time when much of his work pre-‘Libra’ was only available through import, and I was beginning to panic. My supervisor Eric Mottram sent me down to Compendium and even though it was a very busy Sunday, Mike talked to me for about 15 minutes about the dissertation, what books I needed, how we could go about getting them, and much more. It was Mike who ensured that I had all of DeLillo’s works in good time to complete the paper. It was also Mike who loaned me his copy of Harry Crews’ ‘Naked in Garden Hills’ for another essay, as the book was out of print at the time. Mike didn’t really know me from Adam, but didn’t hesitate to offer it to me, such was his generosity of spirit and encouraging nature. So thanks, Mike, for bringing me DeLillo, Harry Crews, William Eastlake “A forgotten man, these days,” you wistfully remarked when you sold me ‘The Bamboo Bed’) and so much more. Wished I’d spent more time in your company, because whenever I did you opened up my mind to things I just wouldn’t have found out about on my own.
Sadness here too on this. Mike was part of a line that included Paul Hammond and Nick Kimberley. Compendium had 3 shops when i first went there. Now it’s gone completely and aside from bookfairs and the bookartbookshop and readings there’s nowhere to browse a stock of recent small press publications in London – is there? Mike was a generous guy with a lovely soft sense of humour. The twinkle in his eyes which drove his big heart is something i’ll always carry as was the fierceness of commitment that underpinned it. We went and had lunch together several times with Kathy Acker when she was in town. A sandwich of caustic asides between tender conversations and runaway giggles. Mike had one of those infectious giggles verging on muggsy from the whacky races. When we were just the two of us talk often turned to Tom Leonard and Bruce Andrews and Kathy and The Fugs.
good to know him some
sad to hear he’s gone
he made a difference
love and love
I had dealings with Mike at Compendium from the mid 80s on. When I took in Writers Forum titles he always paid cash up front “for Bob”, gave me a generous discount on my own purchases and was always glad to set up launches on the shop premises. Not only that, he was warm, drily humerous, and, as far as I could make out, wholly unegotistical – I must have chatted to him for hours, all told, but never found out much about him beyond something of his musical tastes. I bumped into him outside Murder One – it must have been in the spring – and thought he looked unwell, but, eyes twinkling, he was as genial as ever. I feel like crying.
I knew Mike Hart as a school friend in Glasgow at St Aloysius College. He was always at the cutting edge of music and introduced me and many of our friends to the blues and Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry at a time when radio was playing middle of the road. He explained the influences that were shaping British music at the time so that we started listening to the rough originals alongside the pop versions. He showed me how to hold a guitar and tried to teach me to play the mouth organ properly. He was a strong influence on me and others yet in a gentle way. He had a great sense of humour and an ability to challenge accepted standards but was never destructive. I lost touch with him many years ago but I have always considered him one of my friends. I have just learned of his death and am truly saddened despite the thirty odd years since we last met. I often imagined I would meet him again and have a chat about how life had treated us. Now I know I never will. Mike was clearly a good guy and much loved.
the empty table
for mike & john hart
Mike Is liKing thEse
tHe lAtest arRivals Table
In Memoriam: Mike Hart
It is more than ten years since the death of Mike Hart. I only knew him slightly and only found out he had died by chance. Even though, when I found out, his death was more than ten years in the past, I was shocked to see his picture and read that he was gone. Days later I still could hardly shake the sadness.
In some senses it seemed irrational. How do you explain to people that you are crying because you found out that someone who worked in a shop that you used to go to had died ten years ago. But the explanation is simple – Mike Hart was much more than someone who worked in a shop.
Mike introduced me to life changing literature. He introduced me to books that changed the way that I thought, books that I would probably never have come across if not for him. More than that, Mike and Compendium bookshop provided the space for a scene and a community. He influenced the rise of Camden and the kind of people who went there.
I can’t really remember the first time I went into Compendium, but it would have been some time in the mid-eighties. I came from the kind of town where WH Smith was the main bookshop and you were lucky to find a book as left-field as those published by Picador.
So entering Compendium was astonishing.
I think I must have been browsing a long time, just taking in, with awe, the range of books that I had never imagined seeing and trying to get my head around the even bigger range that I had never heard of or imagined. Then all of a sudden this Scottish guy popped out from the front desk and started talking to me.
Maybe he had been watching what I was stopping and looking at, where I had paused, what I had leafed through, but he seemed to almost instantly know the kind of things I was looking for. What’s more when I asked whether they had De Chirico’s ‘Hebdemeros’ Mike not only knew what it was, but that they hadn’t got in stock and that it was on order.
The next time I went in he had held back a copy, in case I was still looking for it – and that was Mike.
Pretty much every time I went into Compendium Mike had a good steer, in terms of what was just out or what else might be of interest.
Mike was pretty much always cheerful and friendly, which in London is a unique quality.
When the shop wasn’t too busy he always had time to chat and introduce you to new things or tell you about stuff. Mike introduced me to a huge range of surrealist fiction that I would never have come across by myself – obscure publications from Breton, to Mansour, via Jarry and Atlas Press.
He helped me find rare publications and translations by Alexander Trocchi. And flagged up the biographies: Life in Pieces and Making of a Monster.
He introduced me to the work of Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair, Harry Crews, Amok Press and then Feral House.
Each of those books was another world.
When Quartet Encounters launched Mike recommended the Boris Vian and promised that at some point he would publish his translation of ‘I Spit on Your Grave’. Mike was also a fan of detective fiction and championed Derek Raymond.
And even though fiction and poetry were his subjects he had more than a passing knowledge of the literary theory and philosophy in the basement, which stocked a wider selection of post-structuralist and post-modern theory than you’d find in most university libraries, plus it was always up to the minute in terms of what they carried.
In the late eighties and early nineties Compendium Books, a few music stores (Reckless Records, Vinyl Solution and later Resurrection Records) and music venues (Electric Ballroom, Camden Palais, Barfly) made Camden Town what it is.
Mike Hart helped build an entire culture. You could buy a Coil album in Vinyl Solution and then pick up an Austin Osman Spare pamphlet round the corner in Compendium.
When musicians like Henry Rollins and Billy Childish started their own presses, Compendium was where you would find them. Compendium would host readings and carry the books. Small presses, fanzines and the like were all welcome on the shelves at Compendium.
Compendium was a fantastic independent bookshop and more than that, it was a huge cultural and artistic resource. It supported new writers and small presses to get off the ground. It was somewhere that you would come into contact with new ideas.
Compendium did more for literature than the Arts Council, ICA and any of the other institutions ever did. Sure the ICA might hold the occasional retrospective for someone like Billy Childish, but Compendium carried his stuff and that of a thousand other authors all the time. And that maybe was part of the downfall – Compendium carried the stuff that mattered, and not best-sellers.
Mike Hart was, in his own way, a huge influence on that time. Not least because of the care and consideration he had for people. I remember one time when I went in, he raised a finger and then hurried off to the basement. A few minutes later he came back – “here,” he said, handing me some original, signed Patti Smith chapbooks – “We were clearing out the basement and found a forgotten box of these, you should have them.”
I always felt that what happened at Compendium was done out of interest, for the fun of it or just to see something new happen.
Probably the last time I saw Mike was at the Garage in Highbury and Islington. RL Burnside was playing – I think he was touring his album – ‘I wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down’. Mike spotted me in the crowd and came over and said ‘Hi’ but it was impossible to talk.
Then life kind of happened and maybe a year went by. A day came when I wanted something obscure to read and headed to Camden, to Compendium. I crossed the road at the Elephant’s Head and walked up the block. But Compendium wasn’t there. I walked back and forth, not quite able to comprehend what was going on.
I walked into a shoe shop and slowly recognised the layout – the step up at the back where the occult section had been, the stairs down to the basement on the right. My brain somehow could not accept that Compendium had gone. It felt like the world had come off its axis.
A member of staff asked if I needed any help. I couldn’t even speak.
Like Camden needed another fucking shoe shop…
Now, more than ten years later and more than ten years after his death, while following a hyperlink to a reference on Kathy Acker, I land on a page and find that Mike Hart had died and am completely gutted.
I recently found your tribute web page to Mike Hart and it brought back some memories of the man who I met by chance back in the mid 1990s.
At that time I was playing in a blues band that was getting some press attention in Glasgow and Mike’s brother was a photographer who took some photographs of the band on one occasion at one of our gigs. Mike was there too and he really dug the music and introduced himself to me in the Scotia Bar in Glasgow’s Stockwell Street at one of our performances. Right away I realised this guy liked music, and all kinds, from Ornette Coleman to Tony Williams Lifetime to Allen Toussaint. A treasured C90 tape is an Allen Toussaint tape and a Meters bootleg he gave me. That was Mike all over, generous, enthusiastic about art and music, and a really interesting conversationalist.
Coming from Glasgow I had never heard of Compendium books in Camden, but my brother moving down south gave me a chance to go and visit him in the shop, which I duly did on a few occasions. I loved the shop mainly because it was well stocked with music biographies of the artists I liked and I soon realised Mike liked them too. On each visit Mike would suggest a book from the shelves I should get, and then a pint in a little Irish pub down the road, and we’d catch up and talk about how things were going in Glasgow and I’d try and jog Mike’s memory about an Ornette Coleman gig at the Bracknell Jazz Festival in the late 70s he’d been to. It was all lovely stuff, he was such a humourous guy. Great company.
I hadn’t been down to London for a while and one day I was at work and I got an email from my brother. Mike had died and his obituary was in the Guardian. I was gutted, didn’t even know he was ill or even that Compendium had closed its doors. Friends up here confirmed he’d come back to Scotland at the end, and I hadn’t even known anything about it.
Then I realised I was just one of many people Mike had touched with his humanity, humour and generosity. He was a one-off.
Mike Hart poetry bookseller
The contribution of booksellers to the poetry world is not recognised enough. Mike Hart’s sad death is a reminder of just how important they can be. He worked very hard at Compendium to keep the poetry section alive and in touch with what was going on. Like others I looked forward to going to the shop to see him, and felt that his presence there was a rewarding part of going to London, because he would greet you with enthusiastic suggestions for new books, and news about readings and poets’ visits to London. An informal information service about poetry. Go in the door and he would invariably say that there was not much new in, and then reflect for a moment and rush off to the poetry section and starting pulling out books, or even on occasion disappear down to the basement for the special stock. Each book on the shelves represented careful thought about the writing. My knowledge of several poets started with his encouragement. When he moved to Murder One I followed and used the excuse of buying sci-fi and mysteries to go on talking, although it was noticeable that he was under more pressure to keep working there. His keen good nature and care for the distribution of new poetry, much of which he could talk about knowledgeably, must have been a significant help in keeping the poetry scene going. On more than one occasion he even engineered introductions to other writers who happened to be in the shop. He will be very much missed, and as Cris said, he made a real difference to the building up of readerships and the discussion that is the lifeblood of poetry. Hard to believe he’s gone.
Drinking wine of an evening in France my sister-in-law mentioned that Mike Hart had died. She didn’t really know him, but knew he had been a friend of mine. I hadn’t seen him for some thirty years but experienced that sense of desolation that comes with the end of a kindred spirit. My spirit was – is – kindred to some extent because Mike established the cultural signposts that have remained significant in my life.
He had failed fourth year in the sweaty competitive academic school we attended and sat in front of me in a maths class. This might have been about 1962. I had started playing in a local band and we had little clue about anything to do with the music except that it was a blast to wallop a guitar in front of girls. Before long Mike was guiding me towards Chuck Berry, then Muddy Waters. He had found a secondhand record shop, specialing in jazz, near the Barras, in Glasgow’s east end where he picked up the very first recording I ever heard of Robert Johnson. It was on the Phillips label and had hysterical sleeve notes. The author of these made a great mystery out of the fact that he had misinterpreted the words “..elegant movements…” as “…Elgin movements…”. What mysterious element of black culture could these Elgin movements refer to? As well as being stunned by the music, Mike and I cracked up over these sleeve notes.
Besides the huge blues interest there was also literature. That first year (1962) we became friends – I think I might have nicked a pen off him in primary school five years earlier – in 1962, in an English class, after exams, when we were allowed to indulge in some free reading, I remember Mike reading Tropic of Cancer (Panther publication?), the liberal English teacher grunted ambivalently. Mike pointed me to the Beats, the Moderns, the Absurd. We went to Edinburgh to hear the Liverpool poets accompanied by Davy Graham. We saw Beckett in Dublin and one of us stole a lavish edition of Dylan Thomas poems from an undeserving capitalist in London.
It was with Mike I saw the films of Eisenstein, Bunuel, Truffaut, with him heard performances of Cage, Stockhausen, he brought me to an awareness of Klee, Kandinskyas well as his beloved Impressionists.
We lost touch entirely from about 1974 until 1991. I can’t remember how we linked up at that time. We had some phonecalls. He turned me on to Tom Raworth, sent me books – Mike never wrote – mentioned projects concerning books on Glasgow rock in the 60s. We nearly met up in Glasgow in 1998. It was my fault we didn’t. I’d had a day driving down from the Highlands, got to my brother’s and accepted a dram and then couldn’t be arsed to bestir myself to go meet him. I think he gave up on me then.
Mike was a guy who sat in front of me in a maths class in 1962. We hung out between then and 1970. No parent, no teacher, no lover, no other kind of mentor has had such a profound effect on my thinking before, during, after this time. If his spirit continues to live in the hearts of others as it does in mine he needs no other monument.
I am truly upset to get this news. Compendium was a real lifeline for me when I discovered it by chance in the late 80s. Mike Hart, though he didn’t know me from Adam, was helpful beyond the call of duty; frequently scuttling downstairs or ‘out back’ to dig out a publication that he new he had somewhere. A lovely man who I’ll never forget for his unassuming championship of the writing we all care about so much.
Love, and tears, to all
p.s. with Compendium gone, where do people go for poetry bookshops in London?
Val and I were both very fond of Mike, over a long time — though living out of London we didn’t often see him during recent years. I think the last time we met in person was the night Compendium closed for the final time. I remember at Bob Cobbing’s funeral several people (Ralph Hawkins, cris cheek and others) wondering how Mike was and saying they hadn’t seen him for a while. He was a powerhouse for poetry during his years at Compendium, and was the person I always advised foreign friends looking for odd or difficult-to-find small press books to contact. For me, he was also a primary source of new and interesting crime fiction. I’m really sorry his projected book on Maggie Bell seems to have foundered… it was a book I’d have been happy to read.
Another grey morning; another hole in possibility.
I was sorry to hear of Mike Hart’s death. A keen supporter of alternative British poetry, as both bookseller and occasional poetry event organiser. He would always take stock, and was generous in taking stock as exchange for books. He also recommended texts. One I remember was Jacques Roubaud’s Oulipo novel The Great Fire of London. I remember once I marvelled that stocks of Ship of Fools books had sold out and I asked who bought them. He looked at me with those deep piercing eyes that Adrian Clarke clearly also remembers, and said, ‘There’s a lot of strange people about.’
There’s a lot of strange people who are going to feel sad at this news.
For me, Mike Hart has a paternal, Guru-like status, influencing my life in much the same way as John Peel. In the very early 90s, at the age of 16 and working in a dead-end job at Heathrow Airport, I drifted into the Compendium bookshop in Camden in pursuit of a Creation Press book compilation called Cease To Exist, after seeing Alan McGee and James Havoc being interviewed on Tony Wilson’s The Other Side of Midnight. I did not know what I was doing, something Mike picked up on instantly. He sold me the book for two quid less than the cover price so I could, as he said smiling in his soft Scottish voice, “put it towards buying a new fucking jumper”, my own full of holes. Mike would often give me discounts, even when I protested, something that I look back on with great affection. He knew that I was spending all my money on books, and would go hungry just so I could own a novel by John Fante or Alexander Trocchi. Mike instantly started to recommend other authors and books to me, sensing my naked enthusiasm for learning about the more experimental and odd tastes in literature. And this was Mike’s strength. He had a great, and unusual capacity for listening and empathy, recommending books that were not his own favourites, but which he innately sensed in his customers tastes. Mike said that I should come to a reading at the Compendium Bookshop by Ann Charters, and sold me her edited book the Penguin Book of the Beats, and immediately I was turned onto Burroughs in a big way, pretty much rejecting the rest of the Beats. I started thieving books consistently from the Charing Cross Road bookshops, saving my money for Compendium, turning up there weighed down with books and hoping for something more brilliant than the mainstream shops could provide. Mike’s recommendations to me were always so personal and considered regardless of whether I had a fiver or a twenty in my pocket, and were without exception always perfect. Bemoaning living in the arse-end of London that is Heathrow, Mike pointed me towards the novels of J.G. Ballard, most of which were set in the very place I lived and despised. I should point out that Mike did not know my name, and I did not know his. To him I was just a regular customer.
In 2000 I went into Compendium and saw all of the books on offer with a 50% discount. The place was closing, and I saw Mike literally pulling books from the shelves. I was speechless and I asked him what was happening. He told me with tears in his eyes that the shop was closing. I was dumbfounded and angered that such a beautiful centre for unadulterated and untainted learning should be forced to close. To me it was a real library. A place to sit and read and become enriched.
I am now a teacher of English Literature and I still use material from books that Mike recommended to me. I remember him with incredible fondness, and miss his presence. The great Mike Hart.
Like a lot of people, I can mark out certain important influences in my life by purchases in Compendium – in the early 1970s buying a copy of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism, for example, or the time that Nick Kimberley had a consignment of La Monte Young’s ‘black’ album. In those days, booksellers tended to be more knowledgeable than most of their customers, and Mike Hart’s expertise seemed to cover an extraordinary amount of ground. I bought my first Elmore Leonard in Compendium, and Mike directed me to Don DeLillo’s Running Dog. This was long before either author was celebrated. Mike also knew which thrillers hit the spot as well-written, pleasurable escapism, and which ones were a disappointment. He would never express a negative opinion, but you could tell from his expression when to save your money. On the other hand, he was already ready with the new Beach Boys Stomp, or the latest rockabilly and deep soul fanzines; if I look through the books and magazines in my music collection, there are numerous obscure titles that remind me of our conversations, ands his recommendations.
Mike was a reserved man, perhaps shy, and so he was difficult to know well. After many years I discovered that he lived in Victoria Road, Alexandra Park, almost directly opposite to a house in which I’d lived in the early 1970s. We talked often about his proposed book on the Glasgow music scene and I tried to encourage him to finish it, get it out. Perhaps he knew too much, and felt unable to make the compromises that allow a book to become a practical reality. His knowledge could always surprise me. When I was putting together an ill-fated compilation to complement my book, Exotica, I was trying to track down the license owner for J.B. Lenoir’s “I Sing Um the Way I Feel”. Mike took this challenge seriously, and if we bumped into each other at a book launch, he’d update me on his researches into the problem. After his death I met Paul Hammond in Barcelona. Paul was surprised I hadn’t been present at the wake organised in London for Mike. I’d felt badly enough, not knowing Mike was ill, even though I’d spoken to him in Murder One during the period when he moved there after Compendium, but to have missed the wake felt terrible. What saddens me is the fact that people like Mike, who quietly and modestly informed the tastes and knowledge of such a wide range of practicing artists, musicians, authors, and poets, have now become an extinct species.