The Two Sandies

When you really care about something you want to get it right. Right?

And I do care about Heroines & Harridans. The shared relish and enthusiasm for great women in history has been a secret pleasure of Sandi Toksvig and illustrator Sandy Nightingale since they first worked together on The Travels of Lady ‘Bulldog’ Burton a few years ago. Observing their exchanges was bit like watching a tennis match. I sat by the net as fabulous females, wonderful women warriors and some real oddballs (sorry) flew back and forth between The Two Sandies. Convention usually dictates a finished text for the artist to illustrate. This gestation was far from conventional. Candidates were served up from both sides of the court. Wholly undignified peals of laughter signalling a point scored. A puff of Wimbledon white smoke and a winning woman selected. That mash-up has to count as mixed-doubles meets mixed-metaphors, methinks.

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Now I should declare that Sandy is my wife. And believe me, art directing ones wife’s artwork is not for the fainthearted. And renaissance woman, Sandi Toksvig, has become a trusted friend. Talented and charming she is also very smart, super-busy and a true professional. I treasure both enough to want to make them blush. But not here.

All sounds a bit intimidating when you are designing a book – but actually it was great fun. Sandi dubbed us the Three Musketeers as we hunkered down to bring the book to life. And print. Despite the sling and arrows . . . well you know the rest of that one. Fact is, and I have been fortunate enough to find this before, professionalism and mutual respect mean a project can overcome almost any obstacle. But if you have ever wrestled with sub-editing text that runs around an irregular shaped image then only you will know the glissando bliss of doing it live on Skype with an author with the silky skills of Sandi Toksvig. Sound fun to you? Then you would find beating a deadline while bobbing about on a boat simply beezer. Boy, can she write text that flows . . .

Being a moddy bugger I often find things an exercise in futility amid chaos. If gardening is an attempt to control nature one wonders if graphics and project management is similarly doomed to end up throttled by weeds.

Mistakes do happen. Let’s be honest. And it is fair to say the mark of a good pro is how you deal with the, right?

Summer and autumn months last year have seen the War Room that is my studio knee-deep with Heroines and Harridans. I should like to portray the War Room like a Battle of Britain nerve-centre. Skilled minions moving key features across a vast table-top map. Banks of observing experts overseeing the manoeuvres. Uniformed cohorts micro-managing detailed deployments of disciplined components. Well, not exactly but one tries.

In short we know our jobs, respect each other and are always up for a giggle. And that is the alchemy we tried to keep in the final book. All sorts of things tried to blow us off-course but we battled through and now it’s out. And lots of nice people bought it for Christmas. Huzzah!

H&H Crown FINAL!!! R1.indd

Yet Mr Cock-up did pay a small visit to our pages. One of the featured Heroines & Harridans is Eleanor of Aquitaine (imagine Liv Tyler), wife of Henry II (try Ray Winston). Their royal court favoured a jester and flatulist called Roland le Fartere whose tour de force was to perform “Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum”. Discretion compels me not to expand beyond telling you that this designer was prompted to distort and move the folio (page number) out of position as if, erm, blown across the page. A small visual gag. However on press, in the wee small hours, a diligent, attentive technician at the printer, Butler Tanner & Dennis, spotted the corrupted folio, thought it was a mistake. And fixed it!

Now I have to say Butler Tanner & Dennis are a great outfit and did a wonderful job but, with publisher economies removing a full set of proofs from the process, the first we saw of this section (others were seen) was finished books. The Robson Press tracked down the source of the ‘correction’. At first I was very irritated but, after a cup of tea (and a brief lie-down), I thought of the printer thinking he was doing the very best for us. I talked it through with The Two Sandies and we concurred, in a collective fit of giggles, to see the funny side and not to make a fuss out of a fart. Collective sighs of relief despite the loss of a small puff of wind.

H&H Crown FINAL!!! R1.indd

Yet all’s well that ends well as literary wordsmiths might opine. The second print-run is almost sold out (again huzzah!). And one part of this digital age is that printing plates are not kept but recycled so change is more viable than in the past. More copies are now available and the flatulent folio is restored.

And that sound is now a sigh.

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Don DeLillo

The following post was commissioned by Picador as a part of their 40 year anniversary. You will no-doubt know I was their long-standing art director so I cut the introduction. Picador asked me to recount the process of this specific jacket design

. . . in full flow and inspired by those around me – and, most importantly, the fabulous writers under the Picador umbrella – I was joyfully drawn to experiment. Not from recklessness, as there was a weight of responsibility to the writers, but more a matter of looking to the differences. What made them unique. Special. Inspiration for my design work on Picador would not be other book covers. More likely it would be the text, music, foreign stamps, artists and explorers.

Explorers? Long before the appellation of ‘renaissance man’ was attached to his name, I was intrigued by the work of Brian Eno. I was an art student when Roxy Music was an art school band. And I thought they were pants once Eno left. By the time I was working on the book jacket for Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Eno’s seminal collaboration with David ByrneMy Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was fizzing around life and work. Eno had produced the LP/CD image himself, too. White Noise as a title, and as a notion, seemed to me to resonate perfectly with his work, and I commissioned him to illustrate the jacket.

Over-ambitious? Maybe. But I took a risk. Sadly, it didn’t come off. I didn’t feel I could use the results. Very hard to do when I admired him so much, but the book had to come first. Art directors take the reflected glory from the successes so, we too, must take the responsibility when it just doesn’t work out. No criticism of Brainy Brian from me – his work on the Picador catalogue was fabulous, by the way.

But there was now a big problem for me. A design concept I thought an open goal was now a big headache. (I’m not a writer – well not a real one – but I can mix my metaphors).

Going back to quiz my instincts on the book, I found I was fumbling for a visual equivalent of white noise. The sleeve of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts had put TV feedback in my mind and, in addition to the sonic title/trigger, had led me to Eno. In need of a ‘wild card’, I turned to Oblique Strategies, which is a set of cards Eno produced with Peter Schmidt in 1975. They are sharp notes to short-circuit tired thinking. And this was no time for creative block! The enigmatic messages on the cards are “evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition) . . .” Picking up random cards some irritated me in the way fortune cookies do. But one or two sparked across the synapses: “Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group”  and “Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events”. One card read, “You can only make one dot at a time”. These phrases reminded me that a company called Imagine had approached me to demo their new computer graphics thingy. The computer and terminal were huge! This was 1984, so just ahead of Apple Mac’s breakthrough with their first computer that went on to become ubiquitous in the design industry and to revolutionise it in some ways.

In short, I felt emboldened in by the notion that serendipity rather than standard practice may be a more productive way to work around the problem I had with this book jacket design. I called Imagine and booked two hours with a computer operator. I called my creative buddy Russell Mills with the scantiest of outlines and asked him to bring a connected object to Imagine’s office next morning. I think he chose the megaphone, or ‘crowd hailer’ as I called it. I took my Braun alarm clock. And a picture of an F1 driver (Ayrton Senna, I recall) in his flame-proofs from the day’s newspaper.

And no plan.

Around my notional framework of a wall of TV screens with a lot of signal interference, we played with the pixels. Never having touched a computer before. Designing ‘live’, more by intuition than literal reasoning. Flying by the seat of our pants.

The spine is a de-construction of the front. The back a further degeneration of the front.

The result is evocative more than literal. A little oblique? Sure. In that decade Picador was something of a research lab in every department.

Despite putting no physical hand on the design is seemed to me correct to credit Brian Eno. And Russell. As it was, being on staff, to leave my name off.

Gabriel García Márquez

A very sad message landed on Sunday’s doorstep. “The Nobel prizewinning author Gabriel García Márquez is suffering from senile dementia and can no longer write, his brother has revealed.” Age takes us all and the Columbian writer is 85. Yet it seems a particularly cruel irony that a mind should fade that once created the magic of One Hundred Years of SolitudeLove in the Time of Cholera and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. A stunning talent that emanates from a country more often in the news for the havoc caused by crops of mind-altering drugs. If only the appetite for literature were as rapacious to western tastes.

But perhaps that bitter observation is too harsh. Márquez is widely read and has received many plaudits including a Nobel prize in 1982. His writing is rich with the spicy marinade of his homeland that so often only an exile can concoct. He worked mostly in Paris, New York, Barcelona and Mexico. I regret that I never met him. But his work was a key part of  the Picador stable so I had the pleasure of applying design to his work. The cover of his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was designed by David Larkin. Subsequent cover designs under my art direction were aimed at simplicity and character. An attempt to create a sense of expectation. A title such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which opens with an anonymous note slid under a door is magic, is a gift. The trick is to recognise it. The illustration by Gary McCarver brings the image to vivid life. Graphic elaboration or over-worked visuals would add little to this potent combination.

So, sadly I cannot tell you of our meeting, of his traits or personality. No jokes, no first-hand insights. Just a recommendation that you read his glorious work. I feel moved to mention that I have friends and acquaintances who are dealing with senility in parents. The tragedy of seeing a mind slip away, perhaps not recognising their own children, whilst physically still present and active. So hard. I find myself hoping that if the mind is in ‘another place’ that it may be a place of contentment not torment. Great art is one of the lasting legacies available to a precious few. One is Gabriel García Márquez. I hope he is in a place as good as he put my mind as a reader.

Nick Hornby

Arsenal. They had a seemingly impossible first leg deficit of 4-0 to AC Milan to overcome and I wanted to see them do it. 3-0 up at halftime . . . It was true Roy of the Rovers stuff. Or, to younger viewers Nick Hornby stuff. Hornby is an obssessive Arsenal fan and eloquently articulates the terrain of football and the nature of fandom in Fever Pitch. I had distanced myself from Chelsea for some time because of crowd violence. Hornby expressed the nature of being a thinking fan in a sport plagued by hooligism and it resonated with me as a reader.

The cover design of Fever Pitch was by Ian Craig. And jolly good it was too.

Nick Hornby

My involvement was in the late 90s, with Nick Hornby’s editor Liz Knights, as a client at Gollancz and the cover of High Fidelity in particular. The hardback jacket had a blue high-contast face on it. It wasn’t too hot, to be honest, but it had a high recognition factor and my task was to use it but bring more to the party for the paperback. I spent much of my youth in record shops and loved Nick’s account and his personal writing style (Sweet man to meet though we didn’t get to know each other well). I added a vinyl record, dub-stylee, and played with the type, adding selective varnishes. Little more to say except that was liked and sold very well. A happy tale thus far . . .

I worked with Liz on trying to establish the Indigo imprint of Gollancz, with Hornby as the flagship. We worked together through her battle with that foul stalker, cancer. Despite extraordinary valiance, the malign disease claimed her. Without Liz the imprint struggled on for a while. Hornby’s new novel was delivered yet I was hearing nothing about the crucial jacket design briefing. Concerned, I asked for a meeting to discuss it. O Dear. Through the glass security door I saw the brief being hurriedly written en route to the meeting. It read ‘Hornbyesque’.

With a working title of Father & Son it tells of the relationship of an adult playing down his age and a rather grown up boy ~ hence my proposed design motif:

Nick Hornby

Sadly, it was rejected. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say. They went with another design group and the book’s final title was About a Boy. Now retired art director, George Sharpe, called to express concern when a remarkably similar idea coincidentally turned up from the same stable on Tony Parson’s first novel. I just let it go, it’s just an idea, right . . ?

A tale of former glories and ‘We wuz robbed‘. But, as Arsene Wenger might say, ‘You can’t win them all, even if you play your best game‘.

Ralph Steadman

You don’t so much commission Ralph Steadman as unleash him. The art direction is implicit in the decision to ask him for artwork. He is a force of nature. His acceptance of a commission is de facto an endorsement of a project – that adds value beyond even the illustration itself.

And I send my best wishes to the lame art director who tells him what, and how to draw. Actually no I don’t send best wishes. They would be foolish. But I may send flowers as commiseration.

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An example is at the top of the page. My adjectives would be, what is the word I am looking for? Pointless, that’s the one.

His work has often been a rage against the system. A wildly exuberant hand and an acute, almost feral, venal eye. His symbiotic, yet combative, relationship with Gonzo writer, Hunter S. Thompson for Rolling Stone magazine is legendary. One of the great hoots being the way each blamed the other for the excesses of their exploits. And his biography is all over the web.

My simple prompt for this blog is just an urge to celebrate this man who has been a part of my life for such a long time. I could relate the time he burst into Stanley Studios demanding “Where’s my fucking artwork?” Not because he thought we had any – but he did feel publishers were not returning his originals as they should – but mainly because he was living in Parsons Green. And we were the nearest. Lunch at 11 Park Walk calmed all. Fuelled by his mockery of his own wrath and significant amounts of Barolo.

I could tell you of his soliloquy on how The History of Civilization all began with the Welsh. “The first man was a Welshman, Homo Boyo. And his wife, Homo Womo. Like a side of beef with arms she was . . .” But Ralph would probably defend his copyright but arriving with a Howitzer and obliterating my cats.

I am tempted to show you a photograph of his spare room. When working on I, Leonado he took to painting The Last Supper on the wall to get under the skin of the painter, hands on. When completed he changed all the bed-linen to white and pushed the bed against the painting so the pillows became the tablecloth of Jesus and his disciples. “That’ll stop visitors getting up to any hanky-panky!” OK, here it is. It is called The Last Cuppa.

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You can look for yourself for Ralph’s antics destroying an iphone with an icepick live on stage. Technology infuriates him. Only mention any kind of Social Media if you wish to see your giblets up close and personal. So may tales and yet I have to tell you he has a big heart, can be the very best company and the world is a better, more vital place, with Ralph in it. he work is full of passion. The man cares. He should be knighted. Go on, Queen and Government, I dare you . . .

I have only spilled a few beans here. And, for your patience Dear Reader, I end with a glimpse of personal friendship. I think of it as belligerent affection, and love it for that. A letter received when we moved into a house in London.

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http://www.ralphsteadmanartcollection.com/ or follow on Twitter (A family member I suspect!) @SteadmanArt

A Piece of China

Against the advice of those who thought I should post every week I took a break from Blogging. I thought you had earned a rest from this place (sorry, PosterousSpace). But I just realised it has been a bit too long. Weeks in fact. Great Googly Moogly! as Frank Zappa would say, if he were still with us.

I could say that I write today about design and technology but that seems rather grand and pompous. The connection is China. Full of surprises they recently closed down several entire fake Apple Stores (yep, the whole sleek Geek temple). In fact not just one – but dozens. Extraordinary enterprise. Gasp here.

A Piece of China

The design part is a cover of a book by William Hinton. It is an account of every day life in rural China. It is called Shenfan and it has a sister tome called Fanshen. The design is simple. Not much to say about it. A well-chosen photograph of a villager painting the name of the town on the end of a house. Long Bow. This is married to a fine choice of typeface by Joy Fox. Check out Joy’s recycled jewellery.

The technology? Cow Gum for that cover to be honest. But I found a great use of current technology to amuse myself on the Devon/London train last week. I sat in the last seat before the area for luggage and seats for the disabled. Four young Chinese sat cross-legged on the floor playing cards. The two girls facing me. The two boys with their backs to me. The girls were losing every game.

Needing distraction from fretting over an important imminent presentaion at One Alfred Place I turned to technology. Taking my, now ancient, iphone surreptitiously from my pocket I channelled Spooks and started taking pictures of the boys cards. Then showed them to the girls. They stifled giggles and started winning regularly. A little creative mischief.

Eventually my cover was blown and they disembarked at Reading, amongst much laughter as a fair section of the carriage was by now in on the game on the boys blind-side. One of the boys came over trying to look menacing but grinning from ear to ear. “You owe me wun pownd!” he declared.

So there it is, China, Design and Technology. This Friday I shall use my phone to attend a feast probably at Wong Kei where fierce waiters will force march me to a table and interrogate menacingly me over a menu.

And I shall think of the kids on the train. And grin.

 A Piece of China

The Fellowship of the Ring, Rotterdam

There is a fair amount to say about design, its inception, creation, execution, reactions and reception. (Let’s skip occasional perdition.) Strictly speaking this blog is intended to highlight the back-stories to some of my design projects. This one ends back stage.

The Fellowship of the Ring, de Doelen, Rotterdam
But the fact is that the more involved you become with your work the more the work/life thingy blurs. One good part of life celebrates another. That is how it seems to go with me and The Lord of the Rings. Every time I get involved there seems to be a coming together of events. I have put iQuill to App before about Doug Adams‘ splendid book and you can read more about it via this link. And those of you who are as yet unaware the enormity of this book/film/music project may well have just missed the point, possibly got sniffy about Middle-earth and gone off to watch celebrity wrestling. Bear with me.

For my curmudgeonly disposition slips into pleasure at the thought of this past week in Holland. Eurostar to Brussels was superb. And through ticketed to Rotterdam for less than a train from Exeter to London – shame on you First Great Western. Towards the end of that leg of the journey we chatted with a charming Dutch cellist who had just completed her music finals in London. Onwards, switching to regular trains as we hurtled onward through the Belgian countryside I became aware of the chap next to me. As did fellow passengers. A young man with tousled curly hair was peering at an unopened Tupperware lunch box. Through a crack in the lid he stared intently and the salad within. Frequently putting it back in his bag before nervously re-examining it at frequent intervals.
The Fellowship of the Ring, de Doelen, Rotterdam

When the going gets weird the weird get going“as someone once said (who was it? Hunter S. Thompson?). For just as I was praising the efficiency of mainland European railways the announcement came over the Tannoy that there was a problem ahead and we were to disembark at the next station and begin a convoluted re-routing involving several trains and a coach. Our cellist companion, the chap with the cracked salad box obsession and ourselves formed a small fellowship of travellers collectively trying to fathom out the increasingly complex travel itinerary in mixed languages.

And that, patient reader, is how I came to find myself in Antwerp as minder to a cello and a box of stick-insects. The owner of the aforementioned Phasmatodea (a unique gift for a friend) was in fact David Buckingham, an accomplished classical guitarist and composer currently appearing in Zorro the musical. You couldn’t make it up.

The Fellowship of the Ring, de Doelen, Rotterdam
Together we chuckled and chatted our way through to Rotterdam where we were greeted by our hosts, Geoff & Doris van Beek. Once work was taken care of (signing-off the graphic identity for ace dentist Geoff van Beek – more on that in a future post) we looked forward to celebrating his birthday. And the fates had conspired to have the band in town that very weekend and, as their guests, we shared with the van Beeks the amazing experience of  a river taxi to Hotel New York for a superb fish lunch followed by a Live to Projection The Lord of the Rings Concert. Converging these dates had depended on the warmth of reception to both the design and the availability of  concert seats. Both went well. Phew!

The concert? Think of the early days of film. Can you picture silent black & white films with musical accompaniment from some berserk crone at the piano? OK. Now forget it. Completely. This is the movie projected in a concert hall with enough musicians performing live, for the whole 3 hours, to constitute a vast sonic army of orchestra and choirs.

The Fellowship of the Ring, de Doelen, Rotterdam

The venue, the impressive Rotterdam venue called de Doelen, in the heart of the city, flanking Schouwburgplein. A concert auditorium and a great conference venue (Like Minds?) There was the familiar, handsome LOTR banner outside. But no people. Well, usual busy city weekend people, but not the usual Tolkein throng. These events draw very large crowds. Seemed odd. Eerie, even. Once inside I realised why. Our host is very well connected and had thoughtfully arranged to introduce us to the de Doelen Director, Mr Gabriël Oostvogel and his team. Such delightful people. Design is a largely back-room activity but they made such a generous fuss of us. Their hospitality was peerless and shared, during the intermission, with the beautiful people of the city. And me such a scruffy English creative!

The concert itself, The Fellowship of the Ring, was sublime. Powerful. Expert. Moving. I dare to say the acoustics may even surpass the more venerable Royal Albert Hall. The industry and power of the event was so impressive. The sheer talent and quality from all concerned was impeccable. And I love the diversity of audiences these concerts attract. Dinner jackets on one side. Shorts and Gandalf T-shirts on the other. But overwhelmingly the power of the emotional resonance of the music of Howard Shore triumphed again. After The Return of the King in London I was not expecting to be quite so moved again by The Fellowship of the Ring in Rotterdam. But we were, of course!  And the van Beeks loved it. The whole audience was ecstatic. Do check this link for YouTube footage, music, review and photographs.

 
And back stage? Permit me a little pride as we were invited back after the performance by the extraordinary conductor Mr. Ludvig Wicki (who is just beaming, joyful and indefatigable off-stage as he is in performance) and his charming wife Beatrice. How he manages to be so bubbly and excited after such an exhaustin and brilliant performance I will never know. So good to have made his acquaintance and I hope we meet again. And the night produced yet another treat as we met the singer, Soloist Kaitlyn Lusk. Wow! What a voice.

The Fellowship of the Ring, de Doelen, Rotterdam

An amazing day. I shall remain forever grateful to Doug Adams inviting me into the world of The Music of The Lord of the Rings Films in 2009. Next Year? Tickets are booked for the de Doelen and The Two Towers concert. See you there?

 

Salman Rushdie

But there was trouble again for the author.

It turned out that Director Deepa Mehta chose the island location over India or Pakistan, where the story is set, to avoid religious protests. Iran had objected to Sri Lanka’s Premier and filming came to an abrupt halt. You will recall Iran’s former leader Ayatollah Kohmeini was the source of the misguided (potty) Fatwa on Rushie for The Satanic Verses. I have never believed the author sought controversy or intended offence. He is an exceptional writer who sets his work in complex societies he knows well. He was a soft target for zealotry.

midnights-childrenI leave this well-worn topic and return to more innocent times, at Stanley Studios, London SW10, as I set about designing the original paperback cover for Midnight’s Children. Not for the first time Pan’s commitment to the significance of the book was to be reflected in the point-size of the typeface. The trouble with a brief of ‘Big Author + Big Title’ is that it can be a typographical blunt instrument. But Sonny Mehta‘s unerring literary judgement had picked another great. In fact he saw it as a possible Booker Prize winner. So the task was to work with it and bring some character to bear. Devouring the tome hungrily in my West London flat I found there was a feast on offer. I was particularly struck by the doctor who when visiting a young woman is confronted by female family members protecting her modesty with a sheet. The sheet has a carefully placed hole through which only local examination of the immediate medical problem is possible. Over time the various local areas build an overall picture for the doctor who has gradually fallen in love with her. The film-maker’s must have had a such an amazing time with such rich narrative.

Potential bestsellers on the mass-market list at Pan Books (parent to the Picador imprint) endured relentless pressure, in cover briefs, to parade 70s film-poster style collages of heroes and helicopters exploding or some such chaos. It was clearly dated even then and I fought the good fight for better graphics where I could. On Picador we worked to develop ways to set the mood and entice interest with the visuals in subtler, but no less effective ways. Midnight’s Children was seen to have huge sales potential yet its target audience is inclined to more nuanced sensibilities. (Read between the lines people, work with me here) As some scribbled notes on the inside of the hardback edition reveal (just unearthed from a box emptied to fill yet another new bookshelf) the ‘just before midnight’ clock hands were my first idea but survived scrutiny. The execution would provide the character. I would handle the type differently now but remain happy with my apparently perverse choice of Ian Pollock to create for me the pealing paint/ faded opulence wall. He was widely celebrated for his brilliantly bizarre, idiosyncratic characters at that time. And we incorporated one big peel in case it won the Booker Prize. In that space I could announce its triumph and avoid a Daz-style corner flash. And if it didn’t, well it’s a peeling bit. The illustrator gave me the original painting (shown) and that recently emerged from another box.

Ian Pollock's artwork
Ian Pollock’s artwork
Notes
Notes

I keep reading that blog posts should be kept short. Shame. Because coincidentaly that was the title of his next novel. I took the painted wall route again with the cover. This time with ‘Shame‘ as graffiti, in Urdu I recall and Salman popped in to Stanley Studios to write it for me. Hard to imagine within a few years he would be in hiding.

Sonny Mehta left London for New York. I left Pan (well it was important for me!). Salman Rushdie went to Penguin with The Satanic Verses. Midnight’s Childen went on to win the ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993. Time sure keeps moving after midnight . . .

Can’t wait to see the film of Midnight’s Children. Or whatever else turns up in boxes come to think of it.

 

 

Steve Jones

I was struck this week by the occurances of the mis-typing of Obama and Osama. In particular the spectacularly dim Breaking News headline from Fox News who announced ‘Obama Bin Laden Dead‘ across the world’s TV screens. Of course predictive text often throws up howlers. My recent attempt to type ‘baubles’ was replaced by ‘Bibles’ to unfortunate effect. The problem, more often than not, is that the rogue word is missed by spell-checkers that leave the wrong word as long as it is spelled correctly.

And then there is the time you use the right word and the spelling is tip top – and you still get a very wrong outcome.

In the days of Dial-Up (when download speeds were about the same as BT’s rural broadband but with a bing-boing-chirruppy tune worthy of the late, great Delia Derbyshire) I found myself hunting a photograph that had previously made a strong impression on me. Henry Steadman, at Transworld at the time, had commissioned me for a book jacket for Almost Like a Whale. Author and Professor of Genetics, Steve Jones revisits the massive impact of Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species. He carefully re-traces the steps of Darwin’s arguement with the Clarks Wayfinders of contemporary scientific knowledge.

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Darwin had speculated that a bear swimming and catching fish might be the first transitional stage of evolution towards becoming ‘like a whale’. Put that way way it almost makes evolution sound as improbably potty as Creationism. But not quite. But on discovering the source of the enigmatic title I remembered a great shot I had seen of a Polar Bear swimming. It was shot from below with the the light streaming down throught the icy waters. A huge beast made even more graceful by buoyancy. I find it very moving. Especially Hippos and Elephants. But maybe that’s just me.

So, into a creaky bakerlite search-engine went the words ‘Polar Bear’. No room for error there. Could have been a child doing a homework project. Nothing can go wrong.

And it didn’t for a while. Page after page of the predictable and over-used as I sought the slippery Ursus Maritimus image that had stimulated my synapses and squirrelled it away for later. Cuddling, sleeping, eating, fighting, performing in case David Attenborough dropped by. Flogging Glacier Mints. All was well, if time consuming.

And then it appeared.

Slowly, line by line, the assembling pixels of one huge image whose very sloth demanded attention. It was one big beast. Lots of white fur. And, not in the heraldic sense, erect and rampant. It was a nude Pin-Up. And I learnt something new to add to my meagre education. ‘Polar Bear’ is gay slang for a septugenarian naked man with lots of white body hair. And a hard-on.

I’m not easily shocked but I nearly dropped my Liquorice Allsorts.

What have you found by mistake in a picture search? How has predictive text complicated your life?

Maxine Hong Kingston

The first strand is the recent publication of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life which is a memoir, in verse, by Maxine Hong Kingston. She is Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her memoirs and fiction have won numerous awards, including the National Book Award and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award. I recommend a quick search for her podcast lectures available from BBC and itunes/Berkley/Yale.

The second strand is the arrival on the mat of an invitation to the Lifetime Achievement Award in International Publishing at the London Book fair in a few days. It has been awarded to Sonny Mehta, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Regular readers her will know that I worked with Sonny for a decade and I count him as a mentor. One day I will summon up the courage to write about the influence of this fabulous man had on me. But that is for another time.

And the third strand is the first ‘Guest Blog’ on here which is coming soon. It will be from an art director in New York who worked with us at Stanley Studios in the 80s as an intern. The eccentric Stanley Studios was our Art Department sanctuary from the steel and glass Pan head office in London. More on that later too.

china-men

These are the elements that prompt me to show two of the very first of my cover designs for Picador Books with Sonny at the helm. China Men and The Woman Warrior. She has a special voice and you know I am not going to give you a cheat-sheet on here. They are both a great read. Seek them out and see life through the eyes of a Chinese-American.

There is no perfect recipe for all book covers but some choice ingredients can be found here: Genuine original writing, crackling, inspiring publisher, a slightly bonkers studio space and an art director who reads, having the time of his life. And thrilling at the wealth of illustration talent to be discovered and enjoyed. llustrator Cathie Felstead took her maiden voyage with us. And what a debut she made!

In China Men we are taken into the world of workers migrating to America (the Gold Mountain) for work to enable them to send money home to their families. How they are seen as one amorphous group but who, by turn, see the caucasians as all looking alike. For their white-skin they call them ghosts. The Postman Ghost, the Carpenter Ghost . . .

Woman Warrior

Cathie’s beautiful artwork was the first commission where I bought the original for my home too. There are few objects, except books and music, I treasure but this sure is one. The colour is built up with layers of collage tissue. The rough edges kept for character. Background off-white as in Chinese culture white associates with death. The fish, which appeared elsewhere in Cathie’s glorious portfolio were added as a migration motif and to draw the eye to an early “First British Publication” slogan without destroying the cover with graphic devices more commonly linked to Daz.

Today there are so many references to Branding. Here the distinctive artwork is the success. It worked in a tough, competitive market-place. It’s all about character, identity and paying due attention to the very special. Human appeal counts.

Hear Maxine Hong Kingston reading from her new book here: http://bit.ly/eCH8W4 . . . and follow @RandomPR on Twitter.