“A physical book is difficult.” – Craig Mod


Every six months or so, Craig Mod (he of subcompact publishing, books in the age of the iPad, and a thousand other things) comes along and does something that makes me sit up and pay attention. Or start scribbling thoughts down. Or plan. Or dream. It’s very much as though there is an audible *ping* when an essay of his appears, as though it is a call to arms.

His latest piece, Let’s talk about margins, discusses the subtly important details involved in the layout and design of physical books:

A physical book is difficult. If you haven’t made one, it’s tough to imagine just how difficult it is. Every detail requires deliberation. There are many details. I will spare you an enumeration. But believe me when I say, if you think about them all before you start, you will never start. The rabbit hole is deep. The truth of any craft.

Huh. I’m reminded of that essay on photography along the lines of, I think, Photography is easy, photography is hard. However, in Mod’s discussion of book margins, quoted above, bookmaking is just hard.

And yet, paradoxically, every time Mod tells me (and, okay, everyone else who cares to listen) how hard this craft is, it only strengthens my resolve to give it a go.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ebooks, page layouts, book design and publishing recently. Friends have been encouraging me along the way. Nodding encouragingly. Offering to collaborate. I ride the waves of my inspiration, enthusiasm and energy. I spend whole days forgetting to eat a proper meal because I’m too absorbed in an idea. I get distracted. I spend hours on some small thing, and then I get frustrated. But it’s a learning process, and I push on. I continue to learn. Things continue to come into focus. I understand more, and I see more and more of the bigger picture.

One of my biggest recurring inspirations, though, is whenever Craig Mod sits down to write something about that whole subject. Something about his understanding of the process just hits me for six. When he talks, I listen.

On publishing projects that lack hard cash, but still exude care and attention, Mod writes:

“We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit.” Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.

This is true delight in the details, right here. Not just a fan’s appreciation of the results, but a deep, nuanced understanding of the entire process, gleaned from years of study, collaboration and involvement in the many steps along the way.

Actually doing something. Actually making something.

That slow, gradual process is what enables people like Craig Mod to truly delight in these kinds of details, and then be able not just to pass on nuggets of wisdom, but solid bars of gold which deeply affect the reader: slabs of raw insight which encourage the next person to take up the challenge, and make a thing of their own.


“a calm wholly at variance with the disturbed spirit of the day.”

Amongst numerous first-hand reports on the outbreak of World War One to be found in the media today and recently, the Manchester Guardian's Country Diary column from one hundred years ago provides one of the more subtle and delicate:

The ripening, sun-browned corn, the sweet-smelling stacked hay, the placid cattle grazing in the fields, the beauty of the fertile summer land, suggest a calm wholly at variance with the disturbed spirit of the day. Nature’s resources, nature’s persistent onward and upward growth, add mute appeal in support of those whose efforts at the present time are in the cause of peace.

The ripening, sun-browned corn, the sweet-smelling stacked hay, the placid cattle grazing in the fields, the beauty of the fertile summer land, suggest a calm wholly at variance with the disturbed spirit of the day. Nature’s resources, nature’s persistent onward and upward growth, add mute appeal in support of those whose efforts at the present time are in the cause of peace.

I adore the Country Diary. It scratches so many itches – such sweet, sensitive observations of nature and rural scenes. In the same feed as the present day Country Diary column, The Guardian website kindly presents the very same column exactly one hundred years on – until today, that is.

As noted at the end of today's post from 5 August, 1914, the commencement of war meant that the Diary disappeared from the Manchester Guardian's pages, not to be resumed again until 1 January, 1915, at the request of the editor, CP Scott.

Until then, the current feed will continue to post archive entries alongside the current ones – from fifty years ago instead.

As ever, it's fascinating to pore over old newspapers, and as you can see above, the weather column provides two interesting titbits: a note that the sunset is 35 seconds later for every ten miles north of Manchester; and a suggested 'lamp time' for cyclists, much akin to lighting up time.

A final 'oh yeah…!' can be derived from comparing the variation between sunset/sunrise times of 100 years ago and today: British Summer Time was not established until 1916.

Beware the nightwalkers: the dangers of nighttime throughout history

51sNm3MeRMLI’m currently reading A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime. The author uses a vast number of quotes and facts and figures from throughout the past thousand years or so to describe “a social history of the nighttime in the pre-Industrial era.”

Some of Ekirch’s revelations aren’t exactly shocking – that crimes were far more frequent under cover of darkness, and that we have long been afraid of things that go bump in the night (or screech, or clunk or…). But it’s the very tangible nature of these fears that brings them home.

We’re programmed to fear the same things we feared 500 or a thousand years ago. Thieves lurking in shadows, or wild animals roaming around us. Undulations in unlit terrain as traps waiting to snare us. And the natural rhythm we generally settle into, performing our daily duties in hours of daylight, before retreating to the safety of our homes for the hours of darkness.

The book is a kind of spiritual cousin to Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, one of my absolute favourite history books. Mortimer’s writing is a bit more entertaining and at times tongue-in-cheek, but Ekirch’s book remains thoroughly readable as it makes such good use of primary source material.

In fact, the tone of Ekirch’s book is often a little surprising. Some passages deal with crimes such as burglary or theft at knifepoint. These crimes are, of course, hideous and terrifying, but they can be read with a pinch of salt when lacking the grisly details. On the other hand, his lengthy description of thief’s candles, superstitious items created from human flesh, or the fingers of the dead – or worse – are quite startlingly grim:

The most notorious charm, the “thief’s candle,” found ready acceptance in most parts of Europe.  The candle was fashioned from either an amputated finger or the fat of a human corpse, leading to the frequent mutilation of executed criminals.  Favoured, too, were fingers severed from the remains of stillborn infants.  Because they had not been baptised, their magical properties were considered more powerful.  To enhance the candle’s potency, the hands of dead criminals, known as Hands of Glory, were sometimes employed as candlesticks.

Wow. That’s a passage that’s going to stay with me. I’m only a short way into this fascinating book. Naturally, it’s a great thing to read at bedtime(!).

It’s good timing, then, that an interesting local history blog flagged up yesterday two sets of newspaper cuttings describing crimes in the 18th century in and around what is now Milton Keynes. In his book, Ekirch describes highway robbery, being careful not to make light of what were often terrible crimes. Indeed, the Wolverton Past blog makes similar vivid references to such crimes:

Northampton Mercury October 1st 1774

On Thursday last, about six in the Morning, was found in the High Road between Shenly and Stony Stratford by two Men going to Work, the Body of one James Wills, a poor industrious Man, most barbarously murdered. He belongs to Woolverton, near Stony Stratford, and had been to a Statute held near Fenny Stratford selling Nuts and Cakes. His head was so terribly beat and bruised by a Slate of a Stake Rail, that on moving him his Brains dropp’d out. He has left a Wife and seven children. Diligent Search is making after the Murderers.

Gosh. Don’t have nightmares.

“Not a travel guide but an elegy” – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock.

I recently finished reading Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. First published in 1968, it’s a memoir of his time spent working as a ranger in Arches National Park, Utah, in the 1950s and ’60s.

By all accounts, Abbey had a bone to pick with the development of public land in the United States, and the annual onslaught of the American public on its own National Parks.

In Desert Solitaire, he describes, in a series of enjoyably lengthy vignettes, the kinds of work he undertook as a park ranger, what life was like in that vast wilderness, and describes with masterful prose several excursions he underwent while living in this remarkable place.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo: National Park Service

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.

His writing includes many rants, for example about America’s beautiful scenery being wrecked by those who wish to ‘experience’ it while never leaving their gas-guzzling cars.

But he will just as quickly turn his pen to describing the subtle majesty of the world around him with a beautiful elegance I’ve rarely found in other writing. Whole paragraphs float past you like Country Diary entries from the Guardian, bordering on romantic poetry.

But while Abbey’s words could be read as romantic, he is very much a realist; his words merely do justice to the unique environment they portray.

I’ve loved reading Desert Solitaire. I’ve spent the past six months or so dipping in and out of it: I caught up with old crotchety Edward as he cleared up after another wave of irresponsible tourists; headed into the big, alien city with him to stock up on food; or trotted off with him on a multi-day hike through unnamed canyons with only pinyon nuts and raisins in our pockets.

The tourists have gone home. Most of them. A few still rumble in and ramble around in their sand-pitted dust-choked iron dinosaurs but the great majority, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture.…)

Desert Solitaire is rather like Thoreau‘s Walden in many ways. But one of the more palpable themes of the book is a sense of change. The scenery Abbey describes is of an America coming to terms with easier access to its beautiful National Parks and the perceived need to exploit the same natural features that make them so unique. He writes about exploring Glen Canyon before the dam, and everywhere his writing is littered with a subtle sense of foreboding, of great change, just around the corner.

But at the same time, his descriptions are of an America set in stone, where change takes millennia to be affected by the elements, and eventually understood and valued by its inhabitants. And that’s what makes the ever-present threat of change so heartbreaking. But Abbey can only explore, observe, reflect, and report.

Everything is packed, all my camping gear stored away, even my whiskers shaved off. Bald-faced as a bank clerk, I stood in front of a mirror this morning and tried on my only white shirt, recently starched. Like putting on chain mail. I even knotted a tie around my neck and tightened it in the proper style—adjusting the garrote for fit. A grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls.

Further memoirs and autobiographical writing of Abbey’s seem hard to come by, so I’m branching out into his more prolific fiction work. The Monkey Wrench Gang opens with a rather wonderful depiction of the sabotage of a new bridge being ceremonially opened over Glen Canyon…

Below is a list of my out-of-context, largely useless Kindle highlights from Desert Solitaire. They’re mostly passages that left me tingling, filled with wanderlust, laughing, daydreaming or mournful. If nothing else, they ought to give you a flavour of some of Abbey’s best turns of phrase.

Continue reading

The opening of Palmerston North’s new railway station in 1963

photo 1
Still from Pictorial Parade No. 145 (1963) – Archives New Zealand

Listening to the latest episode of Radio New Zealand show Sounds Historical,1 I was fascinated to hear a snippet from the opening of Palmerston North’s new railway station in 1963.

I don’t know a great deal about Palmerston North, but I’ve passed through it several times on the main trunk line that runs north and south along the spine of the North Island.

I say ‘passed through’, but clearly I mean ‘around’, as Sounds Historical’s Jim Sullivan2 explained.

It turns out that the new 1963 railway station was also part of the Milson Deviation3 – a new bypass which took the line to the northwest of the city.

Prior to this deviation, the mainline used to run directly through the centre of the city, with trains going over something like thirty level crossings in the process – many of them open, as seen below. Staggering.

photo 3
Still from Pictorial Parade No. 145 (1963) – Archives New Zealand

I don’t know how frequent NZ mainline services were back in the first half of the 20th century, or how many deaths and injuries Palmerston North’s peculiar setup gave rise to – but by all accounts, there were many.

Level crossings – where a railway line crosses an existing footpath, track or road – are inherently dangerous, and inevitably lead to injuries and deaths for a multitude of reasons. There are more than 6,000 level crossings across the British railway network, and Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain’s railway infrastructure, aims to close them where it’s at all possible. They reached a landmark of 750 level crossing closures earlier this year.

Anyway, the recording of the opening of Palmerston North’s new railway station in 1963 can be heard in the first part of last Sunday’s Sounds Historical. The speeches are interesting, particularly Railways Minister John McAlpine’s reference to Britain spending £1.5bn on railways as proof that railways were far from outdated in the 1960s.

You can also view a rather lovely newsreel clip, Pictorial Parade, on YouTube, which goes into more detail and has some lovely shots of the opening. Thanks, Archives NZ.

  1. Look, it’s a radio show about New Zealand history, and it’s available in a convenient podcast. If you’re surprised that this is required listening in my household, you clearly don’t know me very well.
  2. Another couple of things Jim Sullivan said that amused or interested me lately include:
    - His use of the term ‘munted‘ in reference to post-earthquake Christchurch. I love this word, despite its ugly definition, and I love how widespread its use has become in New Zealand English.
    - In recalling the anniversary of the murder of Honora Parker, he never once mentioned the rather brilliant 1994 Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, which depicts the event.
  3. Which sounds like a euphemism for something else entirely.