Why Colin can’t remember – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’


Cave paintings, Lascaux, France (image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)

Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist – a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one – Susan – is conspicuous by her absence, while the other – her brother Colin – is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links – the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears – none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work – and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy – it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’ ?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers – a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.


Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)

In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people – our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters – the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor – a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length – Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Susan’s Tear – is under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where the knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is somewhere on Redesmere – and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.


The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ – “I certainly have never written for children” – though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape – what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond – forces that imbue the landscape, with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished human species, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with the child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and – in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down – we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.


(This piece, here very slightly edited, originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of  An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, (ABBA) – the online presence of the SAS – The Scattered Authors Society)


Ch. 28 – Past, present, future

105 years ago today it was Easter Sunday. My father was born. Half a year ago, the arrival of my grand-daughter, Miss Izzy Flaws, put paid to my chances of hitching a ride on the book event of the year, the launch of Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller.

Granny P

Izzy Flaws at one day old, with her Granny

Instead of heading South-West to Wigtown, I was going in the diametrically opposite direction, North-East to Aberdeen.

It is only in looking back at my notes that I am reminded of how close-run a thing making McAvinchey was. I may have given the impression that all was proceeding serenely to a close by now, but this contemporary note, made two days before the Wigtown Festival was due to start (and, as it turned out, the day before Izzy was born) shows otherwise:

Endpapered 66 books, which appears to be total sewn so far. Stamp arrived. Need to rig up some sort of mask and decide best position for it. See if it is feasible to stamp in two colours., black and gold.
Need to guillotine then mull endpapered books.
20 remaining books sawn – so where are the missing 14??

Raised total endpapered to 70 plus one book sewn (no more papers)
guillotined all 70 top edge, some fore-edge.

mulled 46.

I am startled to realise that I was not only still sewing books at this point, but was yet to stamp a cover (and that I appeared to have mislaid 14 books – which I must have found  eventually). I was faced with the possibility of making an extraordinary effort to get all the books finished for the Friday or else delaying till a more realistic date the following week. Since I had got where I was by working steadily and carefully, I thought it wiser to carry on in the same way, rather than push myself and risk producing sub-standard work, which tends to happen when you hurry. And, as we have seen, I got there in the end:


So what are my reflections on this grand adventure? For all its incidental stresses and occasional frustrations, it was as enjoyable a time as I had spent in years. I would certainly repeat it, drawing on the many lessons I have learned.

But could such a venture ever be more than a glorified publicity stunt, staged in the ultimate hope that it might catch a conventional publisher’s eye?

I was awake to that possibility – would not be averse from it even now – but it was far from being my sole or even my main hope. I do think there are possibilities in ‘extreme self publishing.’

For a parallel, I would look to the Slow Food Movement and its associated local markets which have come to the fore in this country as part of farmers’ recovery from the horrors of BSE compounded by the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Taking its inspiration from continental models, where local produce and associated markets are strong, it is premised on promoting local identity through locally-sourced high quality produce, so seeking to establish regional diversity within a national framework.

A line that occurs in The McAvinchey Codex is actually lifted straight from my notes in the days when I was on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland and occasionally attended a body called the Scottish Literature Forum (which supplied the inspiration for ‘The Forum’ described in the prologue, though its proceedings are not so dramatic):

‘This momentous meeting opens with some brief remarks anent the role of literature in the Scottish economy. Its contribution is significant, greater than many realise – ‘more than golf and cashmere put together’ as one wag succinctly puts it.’

Literary festivals flourish the length and breadth of Scotland. It would not be worthwhile for any mainstream publisher to produce a unique edition tailored to a particular festival, but an extreme self-publisher could:

Screenshot 2018-03-21 09.29.55

Wigtown is somewhat remote – hence the heading: ‘the back of beyond’

And for the festival-goer, what better souvenir than a book produced expressly for the festival, and quite possibly made before their very eyes in the course of it? It would be no great task to set up a temporary book-making operation on site, a sort of pop-up publisher. And as my ingenious friend Dougie Macdonald points out, mass-produced books are now so commonplace that they lack that ‘special’ quality that is sought in a present – not so a hand-made limited edition.

Perhaps, in this age of ‘value added’, the present is the future of the book.

I have long thought that writers should do more to invest in themselves and so reap the rewards from their own work that publishers presently do, commanding the various resources of production themselves, rather than going cap in hand to agents and others to arrange it all for them. ‘Extreme self-publishing’ seems to me to offer the possibility of doing something like that.

It takes no great leap of the imagination to envisage small bands of writers pooling their resources to run small self-publishing operations expressly geared to work with literary festivals – we have micro-breweries, why not micro-publishers? The model also holds out the prospect of co-operative work with local artists and printers and has the potential to be an event in itself, at the heart of its own festival rather than simply on the edge of others.

Anyone fancy it? It could be fun.

For now, farewell – but I’ll be back, depend upon it.

The End.

or, the beginning…

[click here for full List of Contents]



Ch. 27 – Pushing it

most of 100 books

most of 100 books (95, I reckon)

There is a point in any long enterprise when you realise that the end is not in doubt: provided you continue, you will complete it. This point may come some way before the actual accomplishment of the task – there could be a fair bit of a work to do, another mile to run, but by matching up your rate of progress with the time you have to do it and how capable you feel, you realise it is within your capability: you are going to do it.

When I reached this point with McAvinchey, I turned my mind to the question of promotion. I mention this here because I think it the one aspect of the enterprise that I did not do well and would certainly do differently next time.

My original plan had been to run a contemporaneous blog, detailing the history as it occurred day by day in the hope of generating an audience and maintaining interest up to the publication day. I still think that a good idea, but I realised early on that it would be one task too many on top of all the new things I was having to master. I did (just) manage to keep some dated notes for future use, and I put out a fair few updates on Facebook as I went along, but the trouble with Facebook is that its content is momentary – as a reader, if you catch something at the time it is posted, well and good, but finding it again later is not easy. As a poster, your best hope is that enough people comment and share to keep a post current for a time, but it does not create an easily-accessible record as a blog does (you can chase it up via your search history, and I did glean some useful dates and pictures when researching for this blog, but it is a bit laborious).

My fatal error, however, was not having faith in myself – I waited till I felt sure I was not going to fail, and in doing so I missed the possibility of being in the Wigtown Book Festival Programme. I had the venue, thanks to the kindness of Shaun Bythell, proprietor of that august emporium, The Bookshop, but the lack of advance publicity meant that any events had to be organised on an ad hoc basis and promoted guerrilla-fashion with hand-posted ads.

On reflection, this was an opportunity missed: I not only had a book, I had a good story to tell about it; indeed, with a little effort and forethought, I could have staged a demonstration of my bookbinding prowess as part of any event.

Not that the outing was by any means a failure – I organised a small but appreciative flash-mob via social media (even earning a mention in Trip Advisor from my guileful friend Dougie Macdonald) and I sold a good number of books, some to complete strangers; but with more faith in myself I could have done better.

Something else that has only become clear to me in retrospect are the implications of scale here. 100 books is not a lot. In terms of cost (discounting time, a matter already discussed in Chapter 11) it represented an outlay of nearly £900 of which £400 was investment in hardware that remained at my disposal, such as the printer and various tools.  In practical terms, that meant that 34 books sold was sufficient to break even, 60 sold meant the enterprise had paid for itself entirely and anything beyond that was profit, up to a maximum of £600 – not a bad return on my investment.

Although I knew this beforehand, what I had not taken on board was how it should influence my promotion strategy. To sell 34, 60 or even 100 books is a target that is eminently realisable: you do not need to go about it in the same way you would if you aimed to sell thousands or tens of thousands. More importantly, you need to place a proper value on your books – there are few enough of them, and each is a step on the road to breaking even, recovering your costs, making a profit – so don’t waste them.

With that in mind, I would draw the following lessons:

  1. Do NOT give them away free in the hope of some greater return. What greater return do you have in mind? the numbers you are dealing with are so small that you would be better putting effort into selling them directly; and if by some freak you achieve national fame, what then? You still have only 100 books to sell. [By all means give them as gifts to friends who might appreciate them, but put them through your accounts – after all, you’d spend money on any other gift] In part, this is about not overestimating the impact of your work – the couple of books I sent to well-placed strangers in the hope of winning some influence (specifically, a mention in a newspaper or magazine) achieved nothing; perhaps I would have done better to accompany them with some explanatory matter, rather than hoping they spoke for themselves. I would have been better selling them.

2(a) The law requires you to send a copy to the British Library within one month of first publication, which I did (purely out of vanity, I confess – I liked the notion of something I had made myself lurking in the vaults of the British Library for posterity). The law also requires them to send you a receipt. They didn’t, so I won’t be doing that again (the penalties are not onerous and would cost them more to enforce than they are worth). Should I repeat this exercise, I am resolved to become a literary outlaw.*

2(b) While we’re at it, there is neither a legal requirement to have, nor any practical advantage (at this level) to be had from, an ISBN. I hesitate to say that it is solely a means of putting money in Nielsen’s coffers, but what do you get for your £89, apart from a single ISBN? (though you could splash out for a block of ten for £159) Access to an international database? You only have 100 copies to sell. And if someone wants to find your work, an assiduous internet search will do that. Don’t bother with it. I didn’t.

3. Do, however, maintain a social media presence, ideally across a number of platforms. This blog links automatically to Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, so that requires little effort on my part, but it has generated a considerable number of sales, both directly and through people retweeting and sharing. It’s what social media was made for – you don’t need to go viral to sell 100 books.

Now, if you’ve got this far, and have been keeping up, the more alert among you will recall that the Wigtown Book Festival opened on the 22 September, with the triumphant launch of Shaun Bythell’s splendid debut book, The Diary of a Bookseller, which I brazenly intended to latch onto for my own advancement, much as the Fool in King Lear cynically advises:

‘Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it: but the great one that goes up the hill, let him draw thee after.’

so you may wonder why, then, the posters above are dated 29 September – but that is a tale for another day; tomorrow, in fact, which will bring us to a happy close, with some speculation about future directions. For now, fare well.

*if any of the five other libraries – The Bodleian, Cambridge University Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales and the Library of Trinity College Dublin – that are entitled to one copy on request would like one, you’d better be quick. There’s not many left and I won’t be holding any back for you if someone wants to buy them. There’s a limit to even my vanity, and sacrificing £75 worth of books surpasses it.

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Ch. 26: Casing-in

With the covers made and stamped and the books sewn, all that remains is is to join the two. The key element in this is the endpaper, which forms the principle hinge, but this is first augmented by pasting a strip of mull, a species of muslin, to the spine, which has first been rounded manually then ‘glued off’ i.e. pasted up and down its length. The books can then be set aside to dry, taking care that they do not stick to one another.


proof copy, rounded and mulled



Although I began by rounding, gluing off and mulling before gluing on the endpapers, I soone realise that it made more sense to add the endpapers first. The difference can be seen, I think, in the two piles above. I would judge that the right-hand pile has been mulled first, and the mull has then had to be folded back where it has encroached on the strip next to the spine where the endpaper should be glued – hence the odd angle the mull sticks out at. In the left-hand pile, the mull sits more naturally, suggesting it has been applied with the endpapers already in place. In the bottom picture, the endpapers have been glued on, but the mull has yet to be applied.

And so at long last we come to casing-in… here is an edited version of the final process, which my notes tell me took around 7′ per book (the cut jumps  from pasting the front cover to pasting the back). The initial step is to score the spine with the ‘bone’ folder (actually plastic) to allow it to be bent into a curve to receive the book. Next, the book is rounded with thumb pressure.


Observe that disaster is narrowly averted – now that the covers are stamped, there is a right and a wrong way up, and fortunately I check that the book is in the right orientation – it isn’t! The role of the greaseproof paper is first to allow paste to be liberally applied without troubling about going over the edge; then a clean sheet (doubled over) is inserted to prevent any possibility of the endpapers sticking together.

And with every repetition, the piles of books grow…


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Ch. 25 : Stamping out


The finished covers, as they accumulated, left me in something of a quandary. With their brilliant pillar-box red, they looked splendid as they were – so should they be left like that?

The cover of a book has more than one function. In practical terms, it is there to protect the book it contains, but from earliest times it has been a way of proclaiming the value or importance of its contents (or, at a time when only the rich could afford books, the wealth of its owner). In these days of crowded shelves in bookshops the cover’s first function is to make you pause and persuade you to select that one particular book. Personally, I do not need a book to identify itself – indeed, I am probably more liable to take down the book that looks mysterious because it has a plain cover, or none, simply to see what it is. But then I am one of those who, in second-hand bookshops, will always home in on the book that is placed sideways, upside down or the wrong way round in the perpetual hope that it might be something special others have overlooked.

(as an interesting aside, my friend Jackie Morris managed to persuade her publisher to reissue some of her magnificent books with no wording, only the cover art – but then they are something special)

So should McAvinchey have more than just a plain cover, albeit one in brilliant pillar-box red?  There was a practical consideration here  – ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is a saying precisely because we do judge a book by its cover, so covers should be well done. There is probably nowhere that misaligned or poorly-executed lettering stands out more than on the cover or spine of a book and frankly I doubted my ability to do it well enough. Though the whole book-making exercise had been a whirlwind of acquiring new skills, there are times when you have to accept your own limitations.

Then I recalled a post on Facebook by the aforementioned Jackie Morris praising the products of The English Stamp Company, which had produced some spectacular stamps to her own design that she used in signing her books. Would they, I wondered, work on bookcloth? So I asked Jackie to try one out for  me, on a proof copy of McAvinchey, which she very kindly did:

Foxy Morris

Jackie Morris fox stamp on proof copy of The McAvinchey Codex – how’s that for added value?

Although I considered straightforward lettering, I decided I wanted something more enigmatic, something that might make people ask, ‘I wonder what that is?’ I toyed with various possibilities, but it was my daughter Kate who came up with the ideal solution:

Castle 79x81mm

[for those unacquainted with the tale, both Walter Scott and the Scott monument figure prominently in it]

I e-mailed Kate’s artwork to the English Stamp Company and duly received the following:

1 x Image Custom Stamp 80mm x 79mm (ImageStamp) Wood-handled stamp Wood-handled stamp Cost each: £29.50

1 x Extra Large – Black (X82) 141 x 108mm Black 141 x 108mm Black Cost each: £10.00

1 x Encore – Gold (UM10) 75 x 45mm Gold 75 x 45mm Gold Cost each: £6.50

Order Total: £46.00

(for those of you interested, that raised the ‘recovery cost’ to a penny under £9 a book, and the consumable cost to somewhere around a fiver (actually just over, but then I didn’t use all the ink)


Stamp inked in black and gold

In practical terms, the stamp posed a couple of problems. The first was to ensure some consistency in locating it on each cover, and to that end I designed a simple guide from a spare cover board:


The second problem was inking the stamp. I had ordered two ink pads – a large black one and a smaller gold one, without thinking how I would apply them. I knew that I wanted some gold on that red cover, but at the same time I reckoned the Scott Monument should be black (reflecting the sooty appearance it had in the days of my youth, though having been cleaned since, it has some hints of golden sandstone). At first I thought in terms of two stampings, one with gold for the foliage/clouds and one with black for the main body, but I was wary of blurring the image by overstamping it.

Eventually I saw that a more radical solution was called for, so I cut off the lower portion altogether. I found in practice that there was no need to mount it, since it could be easily applied as it was. I have to say that there was something oddly liberating in butchering the stamp in this way – it wouldn’t serve my purpose as it stood, so I adapted it.


The end result was fairly satisfactory, but considerably less than perfect. I liked the gold, but felt that the monument outline could have been blacker and sharper – too much of the fine detail was lost. I do not think this was the fault of the stamp as much as my inexperience in the choice of ink.


As the ink took time to dry, the stamped covers accumulated rapidly, like giant square-winged butterflies.


Then I hit on an ingenious solution, that not only let me hang them compactly but made it easy to keep track of the order they had been stamped in so I would know which should dry first.


Handy things, clothes-horses.

Next up: Casing-in

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Ch. 24 – Marking up

My friend Karin of Celestine & the Hare tells me she was put off bookbinding by a tyranically exact instructor (‘teacher’ hardly seems the right word, since that is something he signally failed to do) who insisted on millimetre-perfect measurement from the outset. That is a great shame as well as a great piece of nonsense, since one of the things that struck me about the making of books was how ‘forgiving’ a technology it is.

By that I mean that it not only allows a fair margin for error, but it is expressly designed to compensate for it – each procedure covers up the last and the endpapers – well-named! – cover up everything. I am not saying that it is something that can be done in a slapdash manner, only that the way it is done strikes me as the practical evolution of a manual process, where the maker relied first and foremost on hand and eye, with a minimum of measurement, and such as there is being ad hoc – you make it work for this book, now; there is no need to replicate exactly time after time: that is for machines.

As I suggested yesterday, covering the bare cases is reminiscent of the school ritual that many of us (of a certain age) will remember, that of covering your books and jotters at the start of the school year – brown paper was the standard, though some ventured into wallpaper, and latterly more colourful papers began to appear, posters culled from teen magazines with pop stars or footballers. However, bookcloth (being thicker and more resilient) is less obedient than brown paper when it comes to taking a crease and holding a fold, so you need to mitre the corners, which calls for some (simple) marking out:

Marking up cover 2

allowance must be made for the thickness of the board…note that the corners have been marked on the cover for ease of repositioning later

Marking up cover 3

By great good fortune, the space between the edge of the set square and the inside flange is just the distance I need to fold a perfect corner, so you line the flange up with the corner of the cover (and use the measuring scale to line up the angle). This allows for the thickness of the board in folding.

If you are marking up quantities of covers at a time – the best way to do it, in volume production – then you want to set them aside in a stack for later use; so it is important to be able to relocate the cover on the cloth exactly as you want it. A horizontal line on the drawing board with the centre marked is all you need to line up and mark the rest – the centre of the spine, the corresponding mark on the cloth, and for good measure, the corners of the cover on the cloth. This is a great help in repositioning the cover once the paste has been applied to the cloth.

marking up cover 1

The simple expedient of marking a line on the drawing board to show the mid point of the cover is a great boon for lining up cover and cloth

After that, it is simple scissor work:

Marking up cover 4

Once marked, the ears are cut off and rudely flung in with the other detritus.

And very soon you have a stack of covers ready for the next stage:

books ready for covering

As for the actual gluing, I was very grateful for this small but useful tip:

and so to work…



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Ch. 23 – a muddled history – or a history of muddle?

You only begin to appreciate the the difficulties of writing history when you try to do it yourself: for the benefit of your readers, you are trying to give an ordered account of something that was far from orderly and occasionally teetered on the brink of chaos.

Last August and September I was doing something I had never attempted before – making a hundred books, from scratch – against a looming deadline, the start of  Wigtown Book Festival,  on 22 September. To complicate matters further, our younger daughter was due to give birth to our first grandchild around the same time, a happy event that might entail a trip to Shetland at short notice, or possibly to Aberdeen.

So although I have been setting out what seems an ordered progression, these contemporary notes give a more accurate flavour of how it really was:

Screenshot 2018-03-15 10.26.11

What surprises me here is the extent of the overlap of all the activities – e.g. by 11 September I am still folding printed sheets into signatures, when I have already embarked on sewing books  and making covers, and have indeed completed some books for early distribution to various parties. Likewise, I had thought that I completed the printing in August while at my sister’s, but as I am now reminded, there was a complication with ordering supplies for the printer. I had ordered toner and an imaging unit (or drum) together to be sent to Linlithgow, but in the event they were sent separately so that I had returned to Perth before the drum arrived.

The toner came on the Friday, but the Monday was a bank holiday, so the drum did not come till the Tuesday, but to complicate matters further there was no-one in, so it was left at a local business address for convenient pick-up – except that the address was no longer local to me by this time.

To spare my sister trouble (and myself a return trip to Linlithgow) I asked for it to be rerouted, imagining that would mean that the courier would pick it up from the Linlithgow address and take it up to Perth, which is about an hour up the road – but instead it involved sending it back to the distribution depot (presumably by the same courier that brought it) and then the distribution depot sending it out again to Perth, with the end result that it did not come till the following Monday – 4 September. Hence the suspension in printing.

However, the advantage of a project of this sort is that there is always something else you can be doing, though the skill then becomes juggling the activities so that you are never brought to a stand by one critical delay that holds up all the rest. With the printer chuntering away in the background to complete the remainder, I was able to embark on sawing and sewing those that were already folded and folding those that were still stored flat to ensure a steady supply; but as I turned out the sewn copies in lots of five, I began to have an eye to the next stage, casing-in.


batch of spines –  at least 25, probably more

To do that, of course, I needed to make up covers. I had already done most of the spines with their paper hinges in Linlithgow, and with the cover-boards pre-cut, making up the bare covers was a simple matter of pasting the prepared spines, sticking the boards to them and setting them aside to dry.


But the next stage called for a bit more skill and care. First I needed to mark out and cut the bookcloth, so the table had to be cleared and the big 10 metre roll hefted up on it. I marked off a metre, then divided that into 4 strips of 250mm width, then divided each of these into thirds (about 366 mm apiece, since the roll was a (generous) 1100mm wide). Then I cut off the metre, for ease of handling, and divided it into strips, which I hung over the door – where some of them are to this day…


Not trowzers drying, but several spare strips of bookcloth handily stored. Useful things, doors.

I decide against dividing the strips into individual covers till I actually needed them, again for ease of handling, the thirty-odd 1100mm strips being more manageable than three times as many individual cover sheets (250×366) would have been.

The next step – covering the bare cases with bookcloth – would be reminiscent of schooldays, that ritual of covering books in brown paper that marked the true start of the school year – do children still do that, I wonder? do they even have books?

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Ch. 22 – The Joy of Sewing

My friend Karin has a book coming out shortly called Bertram Likes to Sew. It’s about a water vole who finds that he prefers sewing to more traditional water vole pursuits, like swimming:

Screenshot 2018-03-14 10.18.00

Bertram © 2018 courtesy of Celestine & the Hare

I’m with Bertram, though aside from buttons, I have only ever sewn two kinds of thing – bow-ties and books. There was a time in my life when I affected a bow-tie, and I thought I might as well do it properly, so I made my own from silk and learned how to tie them, too (it’s exactly like shoelaces, as it happens). I recall a happy evening about quarter of a century ago listening to Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the wireless (another first) while making bow-ties (I have them still).

2018-03-14 10.41.13

The sewing of books is a satisfying occupation: I would recommend it. It is the first real transformation in the whole process. Even though there has been a great deal of work already – typesetting, printing, collating, folding, pressing, sawing – all that is but preparation for the main creative act, which literally pulls it all together. The final preparation is sorting the thread for ready use, as detailed in the previous chapter.

Now boxes of folded signatures piled on one another with weights on top – an economical method of pressing that requires no specialised equipment – stand in readiness for the great transmutation.

weighted book boxes

actually sewn signatures, as the scrawl on the side indicates, but demonstrates the principle of cheapskate pressing: weights and a ream of paper press the top box, which in turn presses that below, and so on. There are 40 books here, all told, each box having two columns of ten.

Take out five complete books and have them ready to hand. Likewise your box of thread:

First, you set up the frame, which consists of getting the bar level (simple) and then stretching the tapes

Fixing the tapes at the bar. They are then passed through the slot in the base and secured using the keys, one of which can be seen lying on the baseboard, to the right of the tape

This process is a great deal more fiddly than it is made to look in this admirable explanatory video from Bookbinders Chronicle:

The principle of fitting the tapes to the keys – H-shaped bits of metal, but with a double crossbar – is simple enough – the same as those belt buckles that use a pair of rings – but in practice it’s remarkable how many ways you can find to do it wrong. However, once you have it done and the tapes are in place and taut, it’s time to begin.

one book sewn, four more of this batch to go; meanwhile, the cases stand drying on the right.

The position can seem awkward at first, since the signatures face away from you, with the spine towards you, so that all the sewing on the inside of the signature is effectively done blind; I did find that a well placed mirror was a help (the problem is not just that you can’t see the holes, but that you can’t see your hand, either – though seeing it in mirror image can cause its own confusions)

You start with a book’s worth of  loose signatures to your right hand, facing up, as it were, then take the first and flip it over on the frame, so that it is now face down, spine towards you, with the top edge to the right. The errors you wish to obviate in sewing are two: getting the signatures the wrong way round or in the wrong order. It obviously helps to start with them in order, but having them numbered at one end of the spine, as I did, is a simple and effective check, since it ensures both that they are the right way round and in the right order.

You have your needle threaded with two metres of thread and start by entering the hole farthest to the right, drawing the thread through till only a tail of a few centimetres is left. You come back out through the next hole,  go over the tape, then in the next and so on, drawing the thread tight by holding both ends when you come out the last hole, the farthest to the left. You then add the next signature and proceed to sew it in the opposite direction, left to right, tying the emerging thread to the tail when you reach the end before proceeding to the next (all this is shown in more detail in the video above).

One batch of five complete. The tapes are released and drawn down till you have about 3cm on the top side and 6cm between the top book and the next before you cut, and so on till you’re done and you have five books ready for next stage

With the radio on in the background and the pile of sewn books accumulating steadily in front of you, it is one of the pleasanter ways of passing the day indoors.


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Ch. 21 – Helping hands


Bookbinding is a mainly solitary occupation in which one person can become happily absorbed for long periods of time with any one of its multifarious tasks, but there is one thing for which assistance is required, or at any rate very helpful to have, and that is sorting the skein of thread into manageable portions.

The advice on Hewit’s site on how to do this is by no means clear,  the only fault I have to find with them: it does instil the dread of ending up with a tangled mass but does little to relieve it. Fortunately my wife is long used to working with wool, and indeed I myself remember as a child lending my hands (literally) so that my mother could wind wool into balls for knitting.

The skein is secured at several points by a piece of thread tied round it, and these should be cut, so that the skein becomes a single loop made up of myriad strands. If you are working alone, then hang it up on something that allows it to fall free for its full length; but if your daughter is around, then have her extend her hands a metre or so apart and wrap the skein round them. Then try to see if you can find the right end first time (there are only two, but a bit like inserting a USB, it seems inevitable that you will have to try it twice) – it will be the one that allows the thread to be easily unwound.

I had estimated that two metres would be enough for each book, so my wife wound off a two metre length and saved it as a small hank loosely tied in a bow. Be careful to get your measurements right at this point, and err on the generous side  – a bit of extra thread is no inconvenience, but finding yourself short with a signature to go is a (minor) pain, since you have to tie on an additional length and then cope with knots and all the rest.

The thread itself is coated with beeswax for ease of sewing and is quite stiff, so in small portions it is not prone to tangle and can be stored in quantities in a small box for ready use.20170819_124955

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Ch. 20 – Wise saws and modern instances


Sawing is not something you readily associate with book-making – sewing, certainly, but taking a saw to a book has a suggestion of destructive violence about it; yet if you are dealing in volume production, sawing is an essential step before sewing can take place.

It is also, I have to confess, one of the elements I never mastered fully – unlike all the rest, it was always a chore, though I think it need not be.

The idea is simple enough – by clamping the unsewn signatures together, spine upward, and sawing across them at several points, you create the holes you will then use for sewing; and because you do them by making a cut across all the signatures at once, you guarantee that they will be aligned, which saves a deal of marking out and individual hole piercing with an awl.

As mentioned already, I had anticipated this stage by printing lines across the spine of each signature to indicate where the cuts should be made. Those worked well enough; the difficulty was all with the saw. I tried several, starting with a neat little model-maker’s tenon saw with a reinforcement to keep it rigid:

fine-toothed modelmaker's saw

model-maker’s saw – probably the most successful, though a coarser cut might have improved it.

As you can see, the saw is quite fine, and creates lateral slits rather than holes; it also takes longer than you think to penetrate all eight sheets of paper in the signature, so that even after what seems an inordinate amount of sawing, and the growing feeling that you might have inflicted permanent damage, you unclamp it nervously only to discover that you have not actually penetrated the inmost sheet.

round abrafile

round ‘abrafile’ blade that flattered to deceive – those cuts look deep enough, but mostly were not

I did switch to what was effectively a round file in a jigsaw frame, and this flattered to deceive – it cut satisfactory trenches across the spine, and seemed to have made rapid progress so that you felt sure this was the answer, only to find on unclamping that again you had not sawn deep enough.


coarse-toothed jig-saw blade


I tried both a standard jigsaw blade – quite coarse – and at the other extreme a fine piercing saw (which I used to cut a vee with two cuts, so doubling the labour) and even at one point a full-sized tenon saw, though this really called for a fixed vice (for the rest I simply held the clamp on my knee).


an experiment in mass production – here we see ten books, in two sets of five, clamped for sawing to ensure that the holes for sewing are aligned. The signature numbers, at the top end of the spine, can be seen towards each end of the clamp, indicating that one set of books is turned the opposite way from the other. The guide lines for sawing can be seen – from the left, for the first signature, the thread goes in at the top end; then come the numbers; then the thread emerges (line 2) and re-enters (line 3). The pecked line marks the centre and was a needless distraction, better omitted. The thread re-emerges at line 4, goes in at 5, to emerge finally at 6 and link to the next signature, where it follows the same path in reverse. The mass sawing was not as efficient as I hoped and it proved easier to saw fewer copies more often than set up ten to do all at once.

I hit on the idea of sawing several copies at once and made a suitable apparatus but setting it up proved too laborious (the thickness of several copies made it hard to exert an even pressure across all of them and those in the middle tended to sink a bit under the pressure of the saw).

The model-maker’s saw was probably the best overall, but I think I would want one with a thicker and perhaps coarser blade next time, and a better designed-clamp that ensured the signature protruded by precisely the amount you need to saw through. (On reflection, much of the tedium was caused by feeling sure, as you were sawing, that you had certainly gone far enough and possibly too far, only to discover (having undone all the clamping) that you had not gone far enough – so a more precise clamp or press would help)

In the event, I found that imperfectly-formed holes could be corrected fairly speedily at the sewing frame using the needle, though occasionally at the cost of stabbing your fingers, since you went in from the rear but had to take care to emerge at the right point in the middle sheet.

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