‘All the world’s a stage –’

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 13.10.53

Say, rather, that it is a toy theatre, much like the one above. We should picture a child making it, putting the various players on stage (or in the wings, ready to make their entrances), preparing backdrops for the changes of scene, so that all seems ready to begin–

but there is a problem.

The child looms gigantically over the tiny theatre and the little cut-out figures  – how is she to relate to them? she is much too large for their little world. With a child’s ingenuity, she solves it – taking a spare piece of card, she cuts out another figure and colours it in, setting it down before the stage, an ideal spectator.

‘That’s me,’ she says.

The Platonic-Aristotelian worldview – the standard Western model still in use today – has a similar flaw: our actual experience is of being in the world and responding to it emotionally as it is made known to us by our senses, but the Platonic worldview is expressly designed to exclude the testimony of the senses (as unreliable), and with it, the Subject.

Instead, the world must be apprehended intellectually as a transcendent reality of unchanging forms or ideas of which the myriad variety we experience by our senses are mere instances – or, put more simply, we should view the world in general terms, through language, setting aside the specific detail.

But where do we, as experiencing subjects, fit in?

The short answer is that we do not: instead, we project ourselves into the model, as the child puts her representation into the theatre, but in doing so we cease to be Subjects and become objectified along with the rest of the model, ideal spectators, the passive observers of an independent reality that exists whether we are there or not.

The place of the Subject (what each of us experiences from moment to moment) is taken in the Platonic model by the general idea of an onlooker, whose role is passive apprehension.


A picture of past and present

A man stands at the head of a pass looking back over the way he has come. In the plain spread out below him, he sees in sunlight the farm where he spent his childhood.

Later, he descends the other side and looking back sees the hills mounting one behind another and outlined against the sky the notch that he knows to be the head of the pass where he stood earlier.

What he sees bears no resemblance to the landscape he experienced earlier, but what he feels can take him right back there.

This expresses something I want to say about our concept of the past – which being a concept is perceived by the intellect, not through feeling or intuition – namely that it is always from the perspective of the present, and is no more than the painted backcloth in the theatre. ‘Ancient times’ are so only to us; our ancestors lived in the present, just as we do; which is why the briefest scrap of poetry can unite us with them:

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

A dead-end design and a template for the future

In 2009 the British Steam Car Challenge vehicle Inspiration set a new World Land Speed Record for a steam-powered car. The team behind it were awarded the Simms Medal by the Royal Automobile Club, named for its founder Frederick Simms, intended to recognise ‘a genuine contribution to motoring innovation by individuals or small companies that also exemplify the spirit of adventure.’

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 15.04.18

The citation by John Wood, Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club’s Awards Sub-Committee, is interesting:

“No one is going to suggest that this vehicle represents a major technical breakthrough, a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity but it is unquestionably a triumph of determination, persistence and absolute refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Does it exemplify the “spirit of adventure”? Unquestionably! And that is why the British Steam Car Challenge Team, in memory of the late Frank Swanston, has been awarded the Simms Medal 2009.”

There is an implicit admission here that the award is not actually merited: while the courage, gallantry and dedication of the team cannot be questioned, the other criterion for the award has not been met. This was not a ‘genuine contribution to motoring innovation’ .

In the words of the citation, ‘a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity.’ The scale of both the improvement and the complexity we will consider shortly, but first we need to look at the value (or otherwise) of land speed records.

For some, travelling supremely fast is an achievement in itself, but the main justification for trying to go as fast as possible has always been that the technical development it entails has a broader application that can be of general benefit. Creating a car that will travel safely at tremendous speed challenges engineers and designers on every front and the solutions they come up with, whether in terms of materials, streamlining, or the design of the engine and ancillary systems, can often, within a few years, find their place in mainstream manufacture.

Conversely, if they remain ad hoc solutions for the sole purpose of record breaking, their value is questionable – for instance, the use of jet propulsion may have raised the absolute LSR to supersonic levels (763 mph in 1997) with the ultimate aim of attaining 1000mph in the near future, but it is difficult to see what practical benefits this will bring – no-one considers jet propulsion as suitable for cars, and in any case, the cutting edge of jet propulsion is in its aeronautical applications, which already exceed anything that might be attempted on land. While there might be some peripheral benefits (in terms of materials and tyre technology, say, though of course the tyres are not driven) much of the technical effort, somewhat perversely, is directed to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for this application.

Against this background, let us consider both the ‘enormous complexity’ of Inspiration and the ‘relatively small improvement’ won by it.

Inspiration weighs in at a hefty 3 tonnes. It is 7.66 m long by 1.7m wide and 1.7m tall. It is powered by a two stage turbine rotating at 13000 rpm for which steam is generated in 12 watertube boilers with 3km of tubing. This requires 3 Megawatts of heat from Liquid Petroleum Gas burners, enough to heat 1500 kettles or make 23 cups of tea per second. This complexity is clad in a combination of carbon composite to the front and aluminium panels to the rear.

Generating a relatively modest 360bhp, the car had a design top speed of 170 mph (for comparison, the Bentley Continental GT, a luxury production car, produces 626 bhp and is capable of 207 mph)

In the event, it took the record with a run of 139.843mph for a measured mile, subsequently raised to 148.308mph in two runs over the measured kilometre.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 15.16.36

The previous record stood at 127.659 mph. It was set in 1906 by the redoubtable Fred Marriott driving the Rocket, a modified version of the production Stanley Steam Car. Its two-cylinder double-acting steam reciprocating engine generated around 150bhp and required 350 revolutions to travel a mile – so that 350 rpm would be a mile a minute, 700rpm would be twice that – 120 mph – and the record would require 740 rpm (for comparison, this equates to the typical idle speed of an internal combustion engine – 600-1000rpm – at which it generates sufficient power to run smoothly and operate various ancillaries like pumps etc. but not enough to move the car).

Rocket weighed in at 1675 lbs, with the entire power plant – boiler, engine, burner and firebox, pumps, tanks etc – contributing just under half the total (835 lbs). Its body was, in effect, an upturned canoe, consisting of canvas stretched over a cedar frame. It was 16′ long and 3′ wide and was made by a noted Boston canoe builder. The car was steered with a tiller.

In sum, a one-off vehicle weighing four times as much with an engine of far greater complexity (twelve times as many boilers!) and generating twice the power, managed to better the record set by a modified production car over a century before by  –

a little more than 20mph, at the second attempt.

Unlike Inspiration’s, the record set by Rocket was absolute – Marriott was the fastest man on the planet, by any means. The following year, he went faster still, but the car crashed when it hit two ruts in the sand at Florida beach. At the time of the crash, he is conservatively reported as having reached a speed of between 140 and 150mph (i.e. the same as the record set by Inspiration) though Marriott himself – who survived the wreck – said that it was timed at ‘a hair under 190 mph’. 


A couple of decades later, in 1925, the young Howard Hughes reportedly drove his Doble E20 roadster at 133mph. Hughes’s car was no record-breaking special, but a lightly modified standard production car in full road-going trim, with a huge flat condenser at the front, which can hardly have contributed to its aerodynamics. It is still on the road today, in the care of Jay Leno

My point is a simple one. As with the jet-powered. Bloodhound SSC, much of the design effort in the British Steam Car Challenge Inspiration was devoted to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for its intended purpose. Steam turbines are best suited to running at constant high speed under heavy load, which makes them ideal for marine propulsion and generating electricity but ill-suited to use in cars. Although Rover experimented with a gas-turbine car in the fifties, no-one to my knowledge had successfully put a steam turbine in a car before Inspiration.


On the other hand, the one proven aspect of Rocket was the power unit. The motor-car was in its infancy but steam had been around as a motive force for nearly two centuries and by then drove shipping, railways, pumping stations and power plants. The steam reciprocating engine was well understood, simple and robust – the Stanley boasted a total of thirteen moving parts and its relatively low running-speed meant that it was unstressed and highly durable.

It was at its zenith in that first decade of the century when the motor-car was still a rich man’s plaything, so that the superior smoothness and quietness of the steam engine outweighed its expense initially, in running and in maintenance; the fact that it took a good half-hour or so to raise steam mattered little if you could pay a chauffeur to do that for you. By the time Abner Doble had overcome most of these difficulties in the 1920s, it was too late: Henry Ford had already established the internal combustion engine as reliable, robust and cheap to run.

Nonetheless, the advance in performance and design that Doble’s car demonstrated in rather less than twenty tears surely make it a far better template for a record-breaking car than the one chosen by the British Steam car Challenge. And while Inspiration is a dead-end, as far as practical application goes, a Doble-based car that took advantage of the advances in design and materials in the last ninety years could be just what the world is looking for.

Many countries in Europe have already fixed dates for the end of internal combustion as a motive force in cars, and most people think that the future lies with electricity. But with improvements in burner technology, sustainable fuels, economic high-pressure steam generation, ultra-low friction engine materials (such as ceramics) and improvements to condensers and autonomous systems, a strong case could be made for steam.

It is certainly an experiment worth trying.

A man deceiving himself in the hope of deceiving others

Screenshot 2018-05-22 12.34.54

This curious speech by Alistair Darling bears listening to twice. If you wish to have the text in front of you, here it is:

‘I do not believe there will be another Scottish referendum in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, the public don’t want it. Most of the British public, never mind the Scottish public, are heartily sick of referendums. They divide, they turn people against each other – the scars are deep, they’re still there in Scotland. And people don’t want to go through that again.

Secondly, the emotion of what happened in 2014, it’s still there, but the economics have got worse. Oil prices are a case in point. It’s interesting that the nationalists now openly talk about the virtual fraudulent nature of the document they produced in 2013 which set out the economic case. None of them will stand by it now, yet there’s another one coming out on Friday. What seems to be different is we’re now going to have a Scottish pound: sharing the pound is off the agenda. They’ve probably noticed that if you spend a lifetime abusing the people that you don’t like and then you break away and say, now can we have a close relationship with you, it doesn’t somehow work. Look for example at what’s going on at the present time. But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

I used to like Alistair Darling well enough; I even met him once, in a surreal moment at the height of the economic crisis in Autumn 2008, when he as Chancellor of the Exchequer was for some reason touring the BBC in Glasgow, where I was part of a group of writers learning about writing for radio.

But I do not believe, on the strength of that speech, that I will be able to trust Alistair Darling, now or in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, he equates democratic debate with civil war: here we have a politician asserting that people do not want to have their say on matters that concern them, that they are fed up with being asked, because it just provokes strife. It is assertions like this that distinguish the career politician from the genuine democrat, the time-server from the public servant. I wonder which the people of the Balkans would have preferred – a divisive referendum on the future of Yugoslavia, and the figurative scars that went with it, or what actually happened to them?

Secondly, the dishonesty that was there in 2014, it’s still there, but it’s got worse. Oil prices are a case in point: at the very time Mr Darling was giving this speech, oil prices were at the highest they have been for four years, and are set to rise still further . Yet he implies the opposite. I am not aware of any nationalists talking openly about the ‘virtual fraudulent nature’ of their 2013 document [what does that actually mean? that it wasn’t fraudulent? that it wasn’t an actual document?] but I certainly don’t hear Mr Darling acknowledging the blatant dishonesty of his own campaign – that Scotland would be left without a currency, that Scotland would have to leave the EU unless it voted ‘No’ (how did that one work out, Alistair?).

At the very time the pro-union coalition were asserting that they would never enter a currency union, each of them knew that in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the first thing that would happen would be a round-table negotiation on that and related matters – that, after all, is how politics works.

(In fact, it was the sheer ineptitude of the ‘better together’ campaign – fronted (one can hardly say ‘led’) by the same Mr Darling – that led me to shift from an initial ‘No’ to an increasingly certain ‘Yes’ as time went on:

(And while we’re on the matter of currency unions between countries where one breaks away after a long history of friction and indeed open rebellion, we might ask if Alistair has any knowledge of our financial relations with the Republic of Ireland – Eire –- from its inception in 1937 as successor to the Free State. The Irish Pound, which was tied to sterling for 40 years – how did that work out, Alistair?)

Finally, there is the strange incoherence that lies below the polished rhetoric: which referendum is he actually talking about? From the initial conflation of the British public with the Scottish (but never mind them) through his reference to deep, scarring division, to that curious statement about wanting a close relationship with people you have broken away from having spent a lifetime abusing them and the invitation to ‘look… at what’s going on at the present time’ it is almost as if he had forgotten the intended subject of his speech and switched to talking about Brexit instead.

And what on earth is he trying to say in that final paragraph?

‘But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

From emphatically telling us at the outset that no-one wants to talk about independence, let alone be asked to vote on it, he now makes the astonishing concession that ‘there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action’ (and let us remember that ‘core’ means ‘heart’) and furthermore ‘if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

And there, if you like, he lets the cat out of the bag. He senses (as I do) that in the wake of Brexit – where Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain* only to be told that they must accept the desire of a large minority of the British electorate (17.4 million out of 46.5) – there is a growing feeling that we would be better not shackled to an England heading resolutely in the wrong direction, trying to revive an idea of itself as a major player on a world stage that has changed out of all recognition (do not forget that we joined the EEC precisely because the old order had changed).

I think that Darling senses, as I do, that the Scottish people would rather like to revisit the question of independence, not because they are dyed-in-the-wool nationalists – I certainly am not – but because they would prefer to be a small nation acting in concert with our neighbours in the largest trading bloc in an interdependent world than part of a larger nation pursuing a solo course with neither economic nor strategic power to sustain it.

I may be wrong, of course; but I would be perfectly happy to ask the people again what they think now, on both matters – Scottish Independence and Membership of the EU. Isn’t that how democracy is meant to work?

Never trust a politician who says that people do not want to be consulted on matters that concern them.

*interestingly, the Scottish vote exactly mirrors the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted remain plus those who did not vote) to those who voted to leave – 62% to 38% in both cases.




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.

[click here for full List of Contents]

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…


[click here for full List of Contents]



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

[click here for full List of Contents]

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…



[click here for full List of Contents]



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?

[click here for full List of Contents]