Books Design Language

The beauty of good design

Danger - weir

… is that it ages gracefully. And stylishly. Because it has integrity.

This sign, alongside the Stour at lower Bryanston, says what it needs to say in a plain, simple, appropriate font, and just keeps on geting better as the years pass.

Photograph taken during a morning walk with the dog in the present cold snap. The winter festival (just kidding), with added illness, provided some time for reading, including Kingsley Amis’s classic first novel, Lucky Jim where he is already firing on all cylinders:

‘I just wondered,’ Beesley said, bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis. ‘I thought I was probably right.’

Skewered in a single aside. An object lesson in making words work. Not far from Proust’s less harsh but equally damning characterisation of Dr Cottard in Swann In Love who was ‘never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest …

And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: ‘Do you really mean that?’

I was very pleased to be given This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes. A good, easy read which bounds along engagingly: Chocolat meets The Life of Pi, with added donuts. Enjoy.

Finally, with best wishes, a thought for the new year (where danger ahead also threatens). This from one of Jeanette Winterson’s recent newsletters:

Do it from the heart or not at all

Happy New Year.

Work life


Having made the mistake last week of allowing myself to be persuaded by my doctor that, because I had a virus, anti-biotics would be no help, this week I simply phoned, stated in no uncertain terms that I felt no better, and a script was left ready for me to collect.

Now the question is – do I keep to the stated dose, or if I double it might I recover twice as quickly? Whilst I think about this I’ll have to get on with the bit of copy editing and typesetting I need to get finished, despite the pounding headache etc., and consider whether I should say anything further to the publisher and author about the comment currently included in the text about strict muslim societies. I want it to be left in, so don’t want to be persuading others to take it out. And, after all, it’s not my decision. But, then again …


Journey to Armenia

Just emerging (I hope!) from a bout of flu. Bad for business but good for re-discovering some of the books on my bookshelves, most particularly Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandelstam.

I have this book in several forms, best in two editions from the Redstone Press: a spiral bound edition and as a beautifully produced ‘book in a box’. The text of both is the brilliant translation by Clarence Brown, with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin.

I did a search at the Redstone site, and sadly both editions are currently unavailable. However their diary for 2009 looks good and Santa, if you’re listening, the special edition of Ants Have Sex in Your Beer by David Shrigley would make a fine present.

But back to Mandelstam – some of the most beautiful prose you’ll ever get to read, from a great poet who perished in Stalin’s Gulag.

What is there to say about the climate on Sevan?

The golden currency of cognac in the secret cupboard of the mountain sun.

And if you haven’t already read Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam (his widow) – don’t delay. Two of the most important books written in the twentieth century.


The end of the world as we know it

With the news as it is, blogging on almost any topic seems trivial, but I guess life goes on (hopefully!)

The crisper weather over the last few days produced some fabulous sunsets, stretching the dying embers of the day across the sky in an awe-inspiring display of colour. It has been the best time for walks, and the picture hardly does justice to the scene but – to fall back down to earth – puts me in mind of classic Hollywood Biblical epics, and the (probably apocryphal but entertaining) story about John Wayne as a centurion.

JW is at the foot of the Cross, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (or similar), as the sky turns to night and storm.

Director: ‘That’s good, John, but this time could you try saying it with awe’
JW, looking up: ‘Aww, he really was the Son of God’

It’s hard to take a sunset seriously again.

But it also points up how difficult it is to create a sense of awe and wonder in words, or describe a state of grace. Even the great Alighieri is not as convincing about Paradise as he is about Hell.

In recent times the most determined effort to create awe (and shock) has involved weaponry, not words.

If the comparison is not too trivial, the equivalent, in words, is surely the long, long sales page on the web which seek to bludgeon and exhaust the reader into submission; and taking action? I have my doubts as to whether this strategy is as effective as it once might have been. It looks a fairly tired formula now. And, even more certainly, invites disappointment for any reader sufficiently seduced to respond.

Google’s recently released Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide suggests the way to sustainable success lies in producing solid content in a form that is clear and easy to follow. In other words: Good, well structured copy.

More on this to come; But in the meantime, this link will take you to Google’s webmaster blog where you can download a free copy of Google’s SEO Starter Guide.


Helen Yorke

Helen Yorke, concert pianist
Helen Yorke, concert pianist

Internationally acclaimed pianist Helen Yorke is giving another series of recitals at her home in Dorchester (Dorset, England) later this week – on Thursday, Friday and Saturday 20th, 21st and 22nd November, starting at 7pm. The programme will include some Bach, Schumann and Rodrigo.

Helen’s recitals offer a rare opportunity to listen to a world class pianist in intimate surroundings and are not to be missed.

I attended her first recital series back in the Summer. Being so close to the piano, which is played so brilliantly, is a totally involving experience in which you really feel the power of the music.

Helen has given piano recitals worldwide, and worked with American singer Renee Fleming for over a decade. She presently teaches at Trinity College, London and at the Birmingham Conservatoire. This summer she also gave recitals at the Buxton Festival and Dartington International Summer School.

Tickets are £10, including interval drinks and canapés. Contact Helen on 01305 264038 to reserve your tickets.

Work life

Fun, work and success

There was an interesting article in the Guardian last Saturday the 8th (Nov) on what the net generation expects in terms of work. The net generation is defined as those in the 20s now entering the workforce, in other words, those who have grown up in the digital age.

Author Don Tapscott writes that ‘Net-geners feel that working and having fun can and should be the same thing. And that ‘Net-geners like to get things done through collaboration. He refers to observations by Tamara Erickson, a widely respected expert on organisations and the changing workforce,

…this generation is not turned on by status or hierarchy. They want to do challenging work, but they don’t necessarily want organisational responsibility. Their dream job, she says, is something like this: a job with a problem or dilemma no one knows how to solve and lots of great people to work with.

Isn’t that the ideal work situation? In fact, isn’t this 60s culture re-defined; a more corporate take, with the focus on work as opposed to dropping out? Bring it on, I say, and hopefully there’s room for an oldie in there somewhere.

Where I might show my age is in the net-geners apparent desire to hear from their managers constantly, on a daily basis preferably. I think I could do without that kind of scrutiny – or even praise. But one note in the article did grate: ‘To be sure … They [organisations] need to compensate people so they’ll be encouraged to work effectively…’

Where did that ‘compensate’ come from, presumably meaning (in the U.S. mould) pay. What are you making amends for, or recompensing? It’s an entirely individualist approach that sees work as taking something away from the individual, as opposed to an opportunity for the individual to contribute. Especially inappropriate in this context (of work as collaboration) and in light of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on the nature of success – ‘Outliers, The Story of Success’ – as featured in the Guardian and Observer yesterday. (Ah. Topicality at last!)

Gladwell, a good example of someone who has put the fun (as well as hard work) back into work, in his new book debunks the idea of the solitary genius:

Gladwell’s contention is not only that success is the result of a complicated mix of social advantages but also that the insistence that some individuals have extra-special gifts and talents, are geniuses in particular fields, or pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is incredibly destructive to society’s idea of itself. ‘No one,’ he says, ‘not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.’ (from Tim Adams’s cover story in the Observer 16.11.08).

It’s time to embrace the era of collaboration.

‘Outliers, The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Allen Lane on 27 Nov.

Music Uncategorized


A week after the event, Obama’s victory is still thrilling and has brought with it a ray of hope. Even some supportive words from Tony Blair have failed to completely dispel the mood of optimism.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

As Leonard Cohen sang last night on stage in Bournemouth.

Try as I might, and believe me I’ve tried hard, I have never been entirely convinced by Cohen as a novelist or, even more so, as a poet on the page. But as a songwriter he hits it, note perfect.

(Well, ok, not every time; ‘Chelsea Hotel’ is a horror, clunky and tasteless, the least refined song he has ever written. But thankfully they didn’t play it.)

He hasn’t been on tour for about 15 years – as he said at one point, “The last time I was here, I was sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream,” – but from the moment he bounds (yes, really!) onstage and you hear the signature honeyed-gravel tones of his voice, you know he’s back at the top of his game.

What becomes clear, over the course of the evening, in the most exciting and involving way, is the quality of the songwriting. And that, as song follows song, the performance becomes truly an event in which we are all, performers and audience alike, there to serve and keep alive these songs that achieve a very special resonance, that penetrate and make a real human connection and, hell, I’m going to say it, songs that fill your being with a profound sense of joy and celebration. Of the possibilities of language and music, and of human beings and the tangled web of contradictions that we live.

In short, if songs are a promise, that promise was kept.

‘So Long Marianne’ is heart-stoppingly perfect. ‘Suzanne’ thrillingly on edge, that somehow seemed to make afresh that most iconic of songs. ‘Who by Fire’ was given a sumptuous introduction by Javier Mas on the bandurria (or the laud!). The musicianship throughout is truly excellent, and the evening is carefully plotted and shaped, the attack of the more recent songs counterbalanced by the more contemplative classics.

‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’, a gorgeous mixture of celebration, longing and regret; the ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ bathed in blue light. And what better night than the 11th of the 11th for ‘The Partisan’, realised beautifully. What’s to say about songs that you haved live with throughout your life? A certain amount of relief that they still stand up; a certain amount of surprise that they seem to be getting even better with time.

Almost at the end, in the final encore, they played ‘Democracy’, with the gleefully satirical refrain ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’. Obama’s victory maybe offers a chance to join in on the chorus:

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on …’

Of course, other celebratory options exist – as subscribers to Jeanette Winterson’s November message will know:

‘… I delayed the site updates this month because I wanted to wait until after the election. I did not, though, shave my pubic hair as instructed by more radical friends in the US, to shout the statement NO MORE BUSH.

But I think we can all have a drink…’

I thoroughly recommend Jeanette Winterson’s monthly newsletter. Her writing is always witty, elegant and full of insight. Most importantly it celebrates life, living and good writing. Sign up to it by following the link from

Cohen’s autumn tour, meanwhile, heads off to London, Birmingham, Paris, Brighton and Manchester. Catch it if you can. You won’t be disappointed.


Language and silence

Pink clouds

It’s not that often that I’m pleased with a photo I’ve taken, having something of a perfectionist streak and only too ready to see faults. But I was really pleased to see this one come up on the computer screen. I took it one evening last week while out walking the dog and, in the meantime, of course, had completely forgotten about it.

As autumn slides into winter – almost literally this year with so much rain – it’s great to catch a perfect moment as dusk falls, the soft pink-edged cloud against the dark blue of the oncoming dark. No stars yet, just the moon. And just me, and the dog, in the landscape. A Nick Drake moment. A threshold moment. Between day and night, between language and silence. Between contemplation and foreboding.

I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way … *

This hinterland is explored by Sara Maitland in ‘A Book of Silence’, published by Granta on the 13th Nov, and featured in both the Guardian and The Observer last weekend. From the excerpts published, this looks like one not to miss and a sparkling addition to recent writing immersed in the landscape, such as John Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’ and Kate Rew’s ‘Wild Swim’ – ‘It passed. The dawn was bright. The cotton grass danced among the tussocks …’ – and I was reaching for my walking boots.

‘Silence does not seem to be a loss or lack of language; it does not even seem to be the opposite of language. I have found it to be a whole world in and of itself, alongside language and culture, but independent of it. It comes from a different place altogether.’

So here I am, sitting on my doorstep in the sunshine, looking out at my huge nothing. I don’t feel worried about falling over the edge of a bottomless chasm, but rather I have a sense of moving up a level, into some finer, cleaner air.’

[Sara Maitland, ‘A Book of Silence’]

And so here also am I. Back working from home, on my own, after an ill-judged business (business? hmmm!) partnership was put out of its misery (and not before time).

Clearly – returning to the photo for a moment – it would be better, for the composition, if the moon was a little higher and further to the right. But just this once I’m willing to let it go. It is what it is. I am where I am. I’m not saying I didn’t consider photoshop, but this is no time to paper over the cracks. At the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month it’s time to start afresh, on solid ground.

*lyrics from Pink Moon by Nick Drake