The joy of the footnote

Establishment cover1 loresEstablishment cover2 lores

Sorting out some old books a few days ago, I noticed this wonderful back cover on a paperback, The Establishment, published by Ace in 1962. No need for a blurb when you can quote paragraphs from four separate reviews in serious papers. Finest of these is surely that from the TES: ‘… amusing and in places brilliantly written… Dr Balogh’s footnotes are outstanding’.
As a devotee of the footnote, I was intrigued to check exactly what was so compelling about Dr Balogh’s piece. It is entitled rather grandly ‘The Apotheosis of the Dilettante: the Establishment of Mandarins’, and is a brief history of the creation and expansion of the UK’s professional civil service. Its footnotes are indeed interesting, many being used for the kind of digressions which have now largely gone out of fashion:

Establishment text loresIn the days of hot metal typesetting footnotes like these must have been a nightmare to sort out. But throughout the chapter, they are very precisely fitted – indeed, on one page the footnote takes up all but seven lines of the text. One might wonder whether the great economist was asked to cut or expand them to fit the pages, although I somehow doubt he would have got involved in such frivolity. In some places, the typesetter’s skill is obvious: on the spread before the one shown above there are two half-line spaces between paragraphs, doubtless inserted in order to bring the first footnote reference on page 90 over to this page.
Nowadays, of course, word processing and page design software do a lot of the work for you. But there is still some skill involved, manipulating the software, cutting or adding a word or two to push a reference forward or back. Here is a page from a local history journal which I designed recently, where each article had copious footnotes.

TOAS Journal loresMaking up pages like this is engrossing work, but very satisfying. I like to use footnotes rather than endnotes in anything I design because they are much the most reader-friendly way of providing references. A glance down the page to check something is a good deal easier (and quicker) than scrolling to the end of the chapter or book. So even if a client has used endnotes in their draft, I tell them I’m happy to change over to footnotes for the final product. Harder work for me, perhaps, but it makes me happy.
As a reader, what makes me very unhappy indeed is when a publisher cuts the footnotes completely from the printed book, telling you that you can go online to find them. A few years ago there was a phase when some firms tried to get away with this (one example can be seen in John Ramsden’s book Don’t Mention the War, published by Abacus in 2006). This mean, penny-pinching attitude and complete disregard for the reader should be countered at all costs.


Nickel’s beautiful book


I must have come across Rob Baker’s fantastic blog Another Nickel in the Machine six or seven years ago, although it first appeared online in 2007.
I suppose that the blog is best described as a series of stories about places and events in London. But that doesn’t begin to take account of the range of personalities, genres, time periods and sheer battiness covered. 
Just look at some of the people who appear in its entries: Mary Quant, Benny Hill, Guy Burgess, Charlie Chaplin, Christine Keeler, William Joyce, Ronnie Kray, Keith Moon. For each of these names there is a long, well-researched and quite captivating story about a particular incident in their life, pointing out connections that must have seemed bizarre at the time and almost unbelievable now. For instance, how on earth did the writer Colin Wilson (author of dozens of books in the 1950s and 60s but almost forgotten now) manage to inveigle himself into a film screening with Marilyn Monroe (and Laurence Olivier)? The answer to this is on the website, but even better for those of us who still like to access our information on pieces of paper gathered together inside a cover (it’s called a ‘book’, Jennifer — ask your grannie), it has now been published in hard copy form.
Each essay (it seems appropriate to give the articles a grown-up name) has been revised and often extended for this quite wonderful publication, which is called Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics. £14.99 will buy you a copy from your local bookstore, or you can source it online from the usual emporia.