Books do furnish a room*

It was a wee bit disconcerting on Tuesday to see my name pop out of Patrick Barkham’s diary piece on Guardian’s op ed page – but then it turned out to be a reference to my namesake, who likes to dress as a badger, live in the woods and eat worms. Chacun à son goût.

Barkham’s piece was a nice article about how he likes not only to tidy and rearrange his own shelves but also to nose around other people’s. ‘Displaying the books we love or the books that made us, or even books to impress, is a civilising impulse,’ he says. And who could disagree?

 My own books now flow through shelves in five separate parts of the house. The main living room has four shelves of what you might call general stuff, a theme which is repeated in a large bookcase in what we loosely call the ‘dining room.’ Upstairs in the spare room, four floor-to-ceiling fitted shelves contain most of the fiction. This was once arranged A-Z by author, but has become hopelessly disorganised over the last 15 years. Another small bookcase is in the main bedroom, filled mainly with novels which Jacqui has already read. I plan to get round to most of them someday.

Then there is my office. It’s a small room, only about ten feet square, but it has shelves on all the walls which are completely full. The books overflow onto the desk, table and floor. These are mainly my working books: once mostly design, typography and printing history, but now with so much stuff on the RAF and the Second World War that the less used material has been displaced into boxes in the dining room.

I once cut out a picture of John Updike from a magazine, and still have it in a plastic wallet. It showed the great man hard at work at his typewriter in a room full of books. (This picture of him looking up from the typewriter, which I found online, must have been taken at the same time but the one I have is from a different angle.)

Pic: © Jill Krementz

This is the ideal writing life I imagine for myself. It may come to pass one of these days, but I fear that I am more likely to reach the being-eaten-by-worms stage first. Perhaps my namesake will gobble them up afterwards.

* The title comes of course from another writing hero, Anthony Powell. I also have another picture clipped from a magazine, showing him in his book-lined study.

Escape, Hide, Warn

I saw this laminated warning notice about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack on the door of a museum in Rodez, on my recent holiday in France.  Sensible advice, simply illustrated, and easily understandable even to me with my very poor French.
The town of Rodez hosted the finish of Stage 14 of the Tour de France on Saturday. A lifetime ambition of being at such an event was however thwarted by having booked to fly home from the local airport at 1725 local time – so we missed it all. And it was one of the most dramatic stages so far, with Chris Froome taking back the yellow jersey from Fabio Aru after beating him up what the BBC called the ‘short but punchy finish.’ Very bad planning!

Robin Murray and the London Industrial Strategy

It’s very sad to see that Robin Murray has died. I remember him from my time working at the GLC between the autumn of 1984 and its closure in March 1986. He was the head of the Industry and Employment Branch of the GLC and I had been recruited to be, if I recall correctly, the Branch’s Publications Co-ordinator – a rather vague title for a job which seemed to have rather ill-defined responsibilities.

It soon became apparent that this ‘Branch’ of the GLC had many different sections or groups inside, nearly all of whom had only been working there for just a year or two and most of whom were engaged in some sort of autonomous publishing activity. There were about 200 people in all, concentrated in various rooms at the southern end of the ground floor of County Hall, but with outposts further afield.

Because the branch had grown so fast there was very little centralised co-ordination, and finding out who knew what was an adventure in itself. Presiding over the chaos was Robin, charm personified and with a deep interest in everything going on round him. This would drive many people bonkers, because while you would be waiting in his outer office for a scheduled meeting with him, he was inside with someone else, time overrun by an hour or more, talking about tiny points of detail.

Every so often, he would chair a meeting which was supposed to co-ordinate the work of the Branch. Twenty or more people would crowd into his office, sitting around his meeting table, and we would go through what was happening in the far flung parts of his empire.

Part of the work of most of the Branch’s sections was to work on a grand plan for London, given the title of the London Industrial Strategy. This had been conceived in the early days of the Labour GLC administration when Michael Ward had become chair of the Industry and Employment Committee. I am not sure of the original publishing schedule for it, but suffice it to say, it was still somewhere in the gestation stage when I arrived in 1984.

The LIS had been conceived to have something like 30 chapters, covering not only industrial sectors such as printing, food and car manufacturing but also subjects like domestic work, homeworking and cleaning. Some chapters had been drafted but many more only existed in the form of committee reports and the like. Two academics, Ben Fine and Teresa Hayter, had also been employed part-time and their job seemed to be to write up some of these sections, and compile a Ten Point Plan of Action for each. Robin was a great believer in Ten Point Plans of Action. During the year of 1985 Ben, in particular, rose to the occasion and turned out a final draft of chapter after chapter, which I could then copy-edit.

We struggled on. Every so often there would be a meeting to see where we had got to. Robin loved these: they seemed more like a university tutorial as he had the chance to quiz everyone about whether they had read so-and-so’s latest version of their chapter.

The typesetting and page layout was in the hands of a man called Reg, in the GLC Supplies Department. He was also handling the production of most of the other reports which were in hand. Reg had heard about the co-ordinating meetings and would often turn up for them, and it took a while to persuade him that people shouldn’t send their work straight to him without going through me. In the end, we developed a good enough relationship and he would buttonhole me in the County Hall bar if I called in for a drink at the end of the day.

As we moved on, and an almost complete draft began to appear, a large problem began to loom. Robin was supposed to write an introduction but there was no sign that this was anywhere near completion. Every so often, we would be told that he had taken some time off to stay home and write it, but nothing seemed to emerge. He had a manual typewriter on his desk and you could sometimes hear it clattering away as you walked down the corridor. (We were still very much in the typewriter era. There was a word processing pool somewhere else in the building. This was run by very obliging people, but you had to book work in with them both for initial typing and then corrections.)

In the run up to Christmas 1985, with the abolition of the GLC now only just over three months away, Robin allowed us to begin typesetting the text. Making up the pages began to follow. Then he decided that the introduction would fill the first 64 pages, and that he would write precisely the number of words which would fill that space.

Sometime in the early new year came another bombshell: Robin needed to take some time off. ‘Family reasons’ is all we were told. The whole project looked doomed, but in the hope that it wasn’t I carried on editing sections, choosing pictures and writing captions, and Reg persevered with the layout. By the time Robin got back to work, everything was pasted up on boards – except the first 64 pages.

Never mind, he told me. The writing of the introduction was his highest priority. When was the final deadline by which he had to have it finished? The typewriter began to clack away and days would pass without me worrying him as to his progress. Inevitably he got sidelined doing other work but then with the final, final deadline coming the next day he told me in the late aftenoon that he would have the draft finished that night so that Reg could have it first thing in the morning. I waited. People went home. The bar closed. I sat in my office working on some of the other dozens of projects which were also still in hand. Finally, at about 11 or 12 in the evening, the internal phone rang and Robin asked me to go over to his office.

‘Charles, my dear old friend, come in, come in.’ The office was strewn with paper and books, but there was what looked like a pile of typescript on his table. But of course, I couldn’t just pick it up and take it away – I had to go through it with him. So we sat, side by side, with him showing me sections, asking me what I thought of them, and him making further corrections by hand as we proceeded.

Hours more went by, marked by the chimes of Big Ben just across the water. Eventually, sometime around 4 in the morning, we finished and I grabbed the papers before he could decide he wanted to look at them again. ‘I need to take them up to Reg at 9am,’ I said.

‘Are you going to go home now?’ he asked. ‘Yes, that’s the plan,’ I replied. ‘I shall sleep here,’ he told me and pointed to the sleeping bag rolled up in the corner. Even only four hours in bed seemed a better idea than kipping on a cold hard County Hall floor, so I said goodnight. I had to get a bemused and grumpy security guard to unlock the front door for me. I didn’t tell him that a senior officer was sleeping on the floor just a few yards away.

Reg got the typesetting done, and with a few adjustments to pictures, we managed to get everything into the first 64 pages. The job went to the printers and then, finally, the books arrived. This must have been sometime in early March.

In the meantime, Neil Kinnock had agreed that he would launch the plan and speak at the event. This was held in one of the big meeting rooms in County Hall. Kinnock, I think, spoke first and then invited Robin to say something.

What followed was a master class in public lecturing. Robin had some old fashioned pre-Powerpoint slides but everything else depended on his speaking style. He held the audience throughout. At one point he removed his jacket, folded it and placed it on his chair, without interrupting his flow. He would, he said, have fourteen points but some would have some subsidiary points. On he went, for perhaps 40 minutes in all, mesmerising the assembled staff and guests.

When he finished, he was greeted with sustained applause. Many people hadn’t seen him since he had returned from his leave of absence, and this was a tribute to the inspiration (and devotion) with which he was regarded.

Neil Kinnock, to his credit, had stayed to the end and then rose to respond. A great orator himself, he had obviously recognised that he had been present at a brilliant demonstration in how to hold an audience. He had recently been to the opera in Milan, he said, and after the finale the principal tenor came to the front of the stage and performed one of the complete arias as an encore. After the applause Robin had received, he thought that he might come forward and perform points 10 to 14 again.

We were by then of course only a couple of years off the next general election and as one of Michael Ward’s staff said to me afterwards, ‘That was Robin’s application to be the Labour government’s chief economic adviser.’ History intervened, however. Two years after the GLC closed, Margaret Thatcher called an election. Neil Kinnock never got to be Prime Minister and Robin Murray never made it into the No 10 back office.

Some years later, I bumped into Robin in London, I think on the Tube. He greeted me again: ‘Charles, my dear old friend, how are you and what have you been doing?’ Charming, inquisitive, inspiring to the last. I shall never forget him.

More about Robin Murray:
Guardian obituary
Open Democracy: article by Hilary Wainwright
Young Foundation

Slow down, you’re moving too fast

Dublin City Council has recently imposed a speed limit of 30kph in large parts of central Dublin – basically any street which is not regarded as a main artery. This is supposed to protect pedestrians and children at play. In order to explain this to the general public, the council has produced another one in its ongoing series of baffling signs, and spent a lot of money erecting them all over the city.

There are four separate symbols in the sign, which I suppose are meant to illustrate the reasons why the speed limit has been imposed. An adult male walking and a juvenile male playing football are just about self-explanatory. But why a small car? And an odd looking house with an open door? I presume the house is somehow trying to indicate that this is a residential area, but I’m completely baffled by the car. Perhaps it’s a Father Ted-style symbol: ‘This car is not small. It’s far away.’

We’ll leave aside the awful typeface used for the Irish language text for the moment. That’s a post for another day.

Type on the street: Westminster/Data 70

Westminster was a typeface designed by Leo Maggs in the 1960s, based on the typeface created for the Westminster Bank for cheque scanning in the early days of optical character recognition. See this article for more about its design. That’s why every single letterform is so different from the rest.
In 1970, Letraset released its own typeface called Data 70 which was ‘closely related’ to Westminster. (That’s the way things worked back then.) Westminster was released by Microsoft in various versions of Windows, such as Windows 98.

Photographed in Anstruther, Fife, on 1 May 2017. The shop was closed.

See Fonts in Use for more examples of Westminster and/or Data 70.

Staring at disaster


The three Labour leaders who have won general elections since 1945

There is no better guide to the completely bonkers attitude of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, who are on course to lead the British Labour Party to disaster in five weeks time, than this article written on Friday in the Independent.
It was written by a Momentum supporter called Rachel Godfrey-Wood, who obviously remains convinced by the Dear Leader.

As a Momentum member, I’m not disheartened by Labour’s losses in the local elections.The local election results are coming in, and the pundits are predicting doom for Labour in next month’s general election. I could have written that line before we even knew the results – in fact I did – because it relies on two hard facts that were never going to change. Firstly, that these local elections are not nationwide and exclude pretty much everywhere that Labour’s vote share has been improving (for instance, there were no elections in London). Secondly, that large sections of the media are committed to building a narrative against Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour’s army of campaigners were never drawn to the idea of giving up their evenings and weekends by good polling numbers, and they won’t be put off by the odd setback in county council elections.

They have been inspired by a vision for a radically different kind of society – an alternative to the rigged political and economic system in which nurses are using foodbanks and four million children are living in poverty.
It’s the people versus the establishment, and for the first time in my lifetime we have, in Jeremy Corbyn, a potential prime minister who is really on our side.

This guff is symptomatic of the failure to face up to the reality that in seizing control of the party these Momentumites have elected a leader who is so mistrusted by the ordinary Labour voter that they are pushing a once-great party with a proud history to certain doom.

Here is what the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley thinks:

There are only two people in the country still trying to sustain the fiction that the general election is competitive. One is Theresa May. “I don’t take anything for granted,” she says, with the most implausible humble-bragging. The other one playing pretendy politics is Jeremy Corbyn, who has to maintain the line that four weeks of further exposure to him, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell will miraculously change the country’s estimation of their suitability to form the next government.
After Labour had been hammered in areas of Britain that the party had controlled for decades past, he blustered that he was “closing the gap” with the Tories, before going on to claim that he was “loving every bit” of this hopelessly unbalanced fight. I dare him to say that to the faces of the hundreds of decent, loyal, hard-working Labour councillors who have just been fed into the jaws of the Tory munching machine.

Rawnsley concludes:

As Labour stares into the jaws of disaster, it is essential to grasp that there was nothing pre-ordained about this rout. The electoral evisceration of Labour wasn’t written in the stars. Defeat is not to be blamed on the whims of the gods or the tides of the moon. This calamity can’t be put down to the caprice of fate. The Tories were handed this opportunity to smash their way to a big majority because Labour made terrible choices and is under abysmal leadership.

Unfortunately it looks as though Labour will pay the price, and this cost will be expressed not just by the many good Labour MPs who, unfortunately, will lose their seats on 8 June. The greater burden will fall on the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For this could well be the last time when an election will be held when all its constituent parts will vote for the same Parliament. And it could condemn the Labour Party itself to electoral oblivion.

Looking on this from abroad, I can only despair.

Déjà vu all over again in Sunday Express as columnist writes same story three times

Reposted from my Dambusters Blog

A colleague sent me a link to this week’s Sunday Express, thinking I would like the fact that it had given me a namecheck and also quoted a commenter on this blog. Fine, I thought at first, but when I looked at it more carefully it did seem to be rather an old story. And so it was.

The article appeared in a column written by Adam Helliker (‘Whispers from the Top: The best informed, most entertaining diary you need to read’) published last Sunday, 30 April 2017. The piece started:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately in Germany in the Second World War, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
It is now more than a decade since Sir Peter Jackson, producer and director of The Lord Of The Rings, declared he was going to remake The Dam Busters.

Sounds familiar? Yes indeed. Here is the ‘best informed’ Mr Helliker, with another of his ‘whispers’, written on 9 August 2015:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately in Germany in the Second World War, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
And with the death of pilot Les Munro, who was to have been the film’s technical adviser, the likelihood of it being made is dropping faster than a bouncing bomb.
Sir Peter Jackson refuses to say when his new version of The Dam Busters will be made.

And if this is not enough for you, here’s where the sequence starts. In what was doubtless named as an exclusive on the day, the ‘most entertaining’ Mr Helliker wrote this on 7 December 2014:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately over 70 years ago in Germany, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
Sir Peter Jackson refuses to say when his new version of The Dam Busters, with a script written by Stephen Fry, will be made. Indeed he professes to becoming increasingly “irritated” when people ask him about it now, even though he has held the rights for five years.

It’s not just the text which is interchangeable in all three versions. Mr Helliker has recycled the same 2014 quote from Sir Peter Jackson: ‘There’s only a limited span I can abide of people driving me nuts asking me when I’m going to do it.’ To add interest, Sir Peter is variously described as ‘being dismissive’, ‘declaring tetchily’, and becoming ‘increasingly irritated’. As indeed he might when he reads this comment for the third time.

The recycling doesn’t stop there. Each article has a quote from a Mr Jim Dooley of the Bomber Command Association. In both 2016 and 2017 he is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a film everyone wants; the original one is always being shown and they wouldn’t do that if there wasn’t an interest in it.’ In 2014, he said: ‘The time to make this film is right now; we are waiting with baited breath. These chaps might not be with us for much longer, and we were hoping for a big opening night to boost funds needed to maintain the new Bomber Command memorial in London.’ So Mr Helliker must have troubled himself to pick up the phone to Mr Dooley on two separate occasions.

Each of the three articles also mentions what Mr Helliker calls ‘chatter’, but seems largely to be generated by him, that the cast of the film will include Colin Firth as Barnes Wallis and Tom Hollander as Guy Gibson. The fact that Tom Hollander (a fine actor, of course) is now in fact 49 and therefore unlikely to be cast as a 24 year old war hero is not mentioned. But original research (such as checking out his Wikipedia entry) doesn’t seem to be Mr Helliker’s forté.

Instead, he just pulls up an old piece he wrote a few months ago, swaps around a few paragraphs and hopes that no one notices. Maybe the line at the top of the page should be changed to ‘Whispers from the Bottom. Recycling old tat every week.’ 

[Thanks to Dom Howard! Full disclosure: the quote in the headline ‘Déjà vu all over again’ is attributed to baseball coach Yogi Berra. Or so it says on his Wikipedia page. ]