An impassioned reader's guide to books new and old

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Reading the Signs

some of my latest acquisitions, destined for historical research - and other purposes
I don't just collect books, I hanker after maps, never go on any journey without making sure that I have one or more of the area I will be visiting. I do from time to time, when I withdraw one from the stash, realise that I need an updated edition. What's the use of using maps I inherited from my parents when they do not show motorways, or bypasses? I now even buy and collect old maps, the older and scruffier the better. Some are out of interest, to compare the then with the now (depressing at times). Others serve another purpose - see end of post below.

poor photo (mine!) taken of an area within the latest edition of OS Landranger 118. purchased online a couple of days ago so we can locate the campsite where we will be staying whilst visiting the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show
You can read maps in the same way you read books - you only have to learn to read the signs; instead of putting together letters to make words, and words to create sentences. A whole new world opens in front of you as you spread the map on the floor and plan your journey, knowing to avoid the the one-in-four Sutton Bank in Yorkshire with a caravan in tow (prohibited anyway) or that steep valleys facing north in winter are likely to be in shadow when you are planning an early-morning photoshoot, or that a footpath winding up a steep gradient will take far longer to walk than one through water meadows along a river. 

how I wish I could find my copy
I recall the time I was given the most eye-opening book as a child, for it taught me HOW to read a map. It is sadly now out of print - you can obtain copies second hand, for a price! It used a clever concept, showed an enlarged section of a map and then alongside it a visual representation of the scene you would be looking at; the scene was described in words as well, as if the two children were really going for a walk. Very clever, and I wish I knew what happened to my copy. Originally published by Blackie & Sons (I think) it was reprinted by OUP in around 1954. The pic is a screen grab so somewhat poor.

fair weather, cold-front cloud after the warm front has passed through - just as today, though this was taken some days ago
And when I bought the latest bundle of old maps from a local antiques shop (most a pound a piece), I came to thinking that we are reading signs all the time, often without realising it. Road signs warning of hidden dangers around a  bend, weeds in the garden (they often tell you about the nature of the soil), bird foot-prints in the snow and that a fox passed through the garden overnight.

pressure chart this morning
Landscape that indicates where a motte and bailey once stood, or a deserted medieval village (best seen from the air). Cloud formations help you to forecast coming rain, or thunderstorms - useful to pea-patch pilots, too, and sailors. Reading the isobars and frontal systems tells you far  more about the expected weather than any TV forecast. Wind-strength, too (the closer together the white lines, the stronger the wind will be; they are like gradients on a topological map. This is today's chart. Click HERE if you want to follow through the anticipated sequence for the next few days, and bookmark it if you want to refer to the site daily, as I do. (Email me if it doesn't work, and I will explain how to locate this section of the BBC's weather forecasting website.)

This is an old chart, so now out of date.
It shows part of the Manchester control zone,
as it was in the mid-1990s.
Specialist maps are an eye-opener: the charts we used to pilot ourselves around the country and abroad were read three-dimensionally, ensuring we did not fly through restricted airspace, or overfly conurbations at too low a height. My husband used to laugh at me when we flew across the channel - I always had my finger on the map; "reading the waves are you?" he would tease. I did so even when flying in cloud, worked out our position on speed, time and known distance - dead reckoning; I always like to know where I am! 

And as this is a Book-Blog, it's time for books! Here are two relevant to 'reading the signs' that recently came my way:

'The Natural Navigator' by Tristan Gooley, published 2010 by Virgin Books; ISBN 978-1-905264-94-0. "The perfect book for getting you started on your own adventure" says Sir Ranulph Fiennes - put away your map and look up from your GPS. Now there's a thought. According to the author, we are all natural navigators; starting with a simple question, "Which way am I looking?", he blends natural science, myth, folklore and the history of travel into the rare and ancient art of finding your own way using nature's own signposts, from the feel of a rock to the look of the moon. You'll learn how to find your way in the countryside by the shape of trees or how to navigate in a city by natural signs. TG is well qualified to write this book, for he is the only living person to have both flown and sailed solo across the Atlantic. Absorbing, teaching us to use our mind and our senses, and full of fascinating stories. (My first copy arrived in a battered condition, so is being absorbed into an altered journal, an allegory of self; the replacement sits by my beside for night-time reading forays.)

'You Are Here' by Katherine Harmon, published 2004 by Princetown Architectural Press; ISBN 978-1-56898-430-8. Subtitled "personal geographies and other maps of the imagination", this enchanting book goes beyond the boundaries of the real world. Evidently, the desire to make maps lies deep within us all, and this doesn't mean just maps of place, but of many disciplines - mapping the mind and ideas using images: a technique that is extremely useful even when planning an essay or a complicated project. It's a very visual book - obviously - but KH has admirably explained the provenance of each illustrated piece and the result is an absolute delight; I have fallen in love with it already. A book to delve into time and time again which will have you reaching for pen and paper, doodling, or taking out pencils, crayons and paints, or fabrics, scissors and threads. (I am indebted to whoever it was who mentioned this book in their own Blog, or on Facebook; I instantly got hold of a copy; it's a revelation. So much so that I am taking it away with me, and have this morning purchased a new sketch book with a shiny sea-blue cover, and already titled it 'Another Day, Another Journey'. Map snippets are printed, my art bag located, and whatever first comes into my head when I wake on Monday morning will be lettered onto the page.)


And those old maps I am currently collecting? I turn them into 'Travel Trails' - little concertina booklets backed with fabric in which I write brief notes or word-whispers, adding sketches and photos; a memory of a special occasion or visit to a beloved place.

a folded map, lightly covered with diluted acrylic paint and sprayed with diluted coffee, photos printed and adhered and stitched to cheesecloth, and a few words from my 2010 travels to Northern Ireland and Shropshire

Books mentioned can be purchased either through your local bookshop it online through Amazon. And I crave your indulgence: if you like this post, and the books listed, do please forward it to a friend, or mention it on Facebook, so as to support the authors and publishers who bring us such good reading and fascinating work.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Interim book post

Books from our former house, stored when we moved from there in 1977 at our magazine publishing premises, and then hastily moved into unconverted part of the house in 1999 when we 'retired'. No electricity, no heating and the walls are still as they were when we bought the place in 1969. It's our next project.


At last, a sound night's sleep and I wake to a perfect dawn, eager to be at my desk, writing. This year, since the week before and after midsummer, the weather has been so meteorologically perfect that the last streak of sunset can be seen in the northern sky, and only a few hours later, the sun rises in the north-east; the garden and village green is again bathed in early sunlight, and I cannot sleep. So I read.

Some of my favourite books, to which I often refer when working on commissions. They sit on the top two shelves of a bookcase my husband made for me especially to house my daily clutter (the shelves are not wonky, it's just the angle at which I took the photo).


Recent midsummers have been dull and grey, and I have felt cheated of this northern miracle, missing the early dawns, the first blackbird singing. Today (1st July) is one of those joyous days when you feel that any book you take into your hands, new or old - caressing the cover, the spine, the texture of each page, the smell of printing ink or the mustiness of the attic - will bring delight, no matter how obtuse the subject or the writing. (Although written early on Friday morning, photos were not taken until Sunday 3rd.) 

Yet more working notebooks, within reach of my writing desk.


In the depths of winter, with the cold here in the high Cotswolds seeping into my very being, I am more selective. Wrapped in a shawl (or duvet!), I'll happily re-read old favourites: 'The Snowblind Moon' (a winter book set in America's mid-west), or 'The Enchantress' which gravitates from 18th Century Geneva to the ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. But if my feet and fingers are numb with the cold, I'll creep into bed early with 'Tess of the Durbervilles', grateful that I do not have to endure turnip-picking in stony, frozen ground.

Just a few of the gardening titles awaiting review on the cabinet in  my office; travel titles are oiled on the hall table and sit on the stairs, whilst art books are everywhere.


I had promised a selection of new books for this second post of my new blog. Awaiting attention and inclusion are piles of gardening books, many travel guides, a stack of mixed-media titles: the covers are photographed, I'm in touch with one or two authors, and gradually sifting through my publisher contacts. I'm assembling a list of outstanding independent bookstores (new and second-hand), adding them to the blog sidebars. A slow process - and a chicken-and-egg situation: until I can offer publishers a worthwhile following - and show it on screen, they will be less-inclined to offer support, and until I can offer followers something more concrete than reminiscences, they will not be attracted to this site! So please help me to spread the word.

Read the story of this find on my 'Wild Somerset Child' blog, here; I still haven't dared to cut it up, it sits alongside my writing desk for when I need a particular quote, or so I can just touch it, even though it is falling apart.


Indeed, thankyou to everyone who has commented on this new venture, and to recent 'followers'. I do so appreciate your encouragement, advice and suggestions. I'll leave you with some non-obligatory homework: 'Does the weather or time of year affect what you read?' Discuss.


Books mentioned: (links take you to Amazon and listings for new or second hand-editions and are correct as of 3rd July, 2011) 
'The Snowblind Moon' by John Byrne Cooke (1984), Futura Publications, div of Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, ISBN 7088-2915-5; 
'The Enchantress',  Han Suyin (1985),  Bantam Books, ISBN 0-553-17192-5; 
'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'  by Thomas Hardy (1891), Penguin Books.