Some recent snapshots

Rural scenes in central Milton Keynes
Rural scenes in central Milton Keynes

The weather this past week has suddenly taken a turn for the autumnal…

I think my brain is still convinced we have weeks or months of summer left, but the distinct chill in the air each morning the past few days is quickly showing me otherwise.

Whilst I still have a glimmer of hope left, I’ve been trying my best to take advantage of dry spells and continuing to get out for bike rides and runs. But it’s getting harder…

Accidental bike/shoe colour coordination 1
Accidental bike/shoe colour coordination 1
Accidental bike/shoe colour coordination 2
Accidental bike/shoe colour coordination 2
Not a bad little path for a run
Not a bad little path for a run
Approaching the Quadrant:MK by bike
Approaching the Quadrant:MK by bike
Even road junctions around Milton Keynes can look good in a decent sunset
Even road junctions around Milton Keynes can look good in a decent sunset
A recent stretch of the legs
A recent stretch of the legs

“A physical book is difficult.” – Craig Mod

photodenmark

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.

Onwards.

“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.