Between Soft Covers

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About a year ago now a smiling vanman delivered twenty-six heavy brown-papered packages from a trolley and stacked them along the side of the hall. I scrabbled one parcel open and there they were: the first copies, straight from their Yorkshire printer, of my memoir, Learning Things. I felt triumphant. The chaotic, sometimes threatening, jumble that had been the ingredients of my family’s lives and mine were now tamed into some sort of order – not just a pile of typed pages but a real book.

It is not very expensive to publish a book but why embark on the venture at all? Well, our histories and memories are the context of our children. To my children and grandchildren (three of them half- American) the there-and-then of my parents’ lives in India, at war, even my own experiences of boarding-school and as a terrified apprentice parachutist, seem almost unimaginably far away. My mother had died when I was 17 and my father, away for so long at war, had been a remote figure, so I too learned much about them as I explored the material I had.

Some memoir writers, I imagine, are confronted by chests of material, unsorted and revealing ‘family papers’, hauled from attics as treasure trove. I had no more than a small, threadbare attaché case where I’d always kept bundles of letters, pocket diaries and miniature accounts ledgers, together with half a dozen small photo albums with snapshots in black-and-white and sepia. But there can be much in little: their yield was a revelation. Some three dozen letters, addressed and dated, could be sequenced into a time-line with not so many gaps from my grandfather’s birth in 1869 until my own leave in Cyprus as I finished national service in 1954. There, at least, was the encouragement of a backbone for a narrative, a sort of sketch-map of the territory. At least I might be able to tell a story with other leading characters alongside me; the memoir could be something better than a self-congratulatory scrapbook. I could choose a few highlights and occasions to focus on rather than plod egocentrically (‘and then I . . . and then I . . .’) from year to year.

The few letters, sprinkled over eighty years, though, offered much more than a chain of events. They are the voices of the writers, voices in the tones of their times. I catch characteristically British reassurance in the nine words my officer father, lying wounded in a Khartoum hospital, cabled to my anxious mother: Sli

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About a year ago now a smiling vanman delivered twenty-six heavy brown-papered packages from a trolley and stacked them along the side of the hall. I scrabbled one parcel open and there they were: the first copies, straight from their Yorkshire printer, of my memoir, Learning Things. I felt triumphant. The chaotic, sometimes threatening, jumble that had been the ingredients of my family’s lives and mine were now tamed into some sort of order – not just a pile of typed pages but a real book.

It is not very expensive to publish a book but why embark on the venture at all? Well, our histories and memories are the context of our children. To my children and grandchildren (three of them half- American) the there-and-then of my parents’ lives in India, at war, even my own experiences of boarding-school and as a terrified apprentice parachutist, seem almost unimaginably far away. My mother had died when I was 17 and my father, away for so long at war, had been a remote figure, so I too learned much about them as I explored the material I had.

Some memoir writers, I imagine, are confronted by chests of material, unsorted and revealing ‘family papers’, hauled from attics as treasure trove. I had no more than a small, threadbare attaché case where I’d always kept bundles of letters, pocket diaries and miniature accounts ledgers, together with half a dozen small photo albums with snapshots in black-and-white and sepia. But there can be much in little: their yield was a revelation. Some three dozen letters, addressed and dated, could be sequenced into a time-line with not so many gaps from my grandfather’s birth in 1869 until my own leave in Cyprus as I finished national service in 1954. There, at least, was the encouragement of a backbone for a narrative, a sort of sketch-map of the territory. At least I might be able to tell a story with other leading characters alongside me; the memoir could be something better than a self-congratulatory scrapbook. I could choose a few highlights and occasions to focus on rather than plod egocentrically (‘and then I . . . and then I . . .’) from year to year.

The few letters, sprinkled over eighty years, though, offered much more than a chain of events. They are the voices of the writers, voices in the tones of their times. I catch characteristically British reassurance in the nine words my officer father, lying wounded in a Khartoum hospital, cabled to my anxious mother: Slightly wounded but in grand form much love Coldstream. And thus, so dreadfully sadly, wrote my deeply religious, truly Victorian grandmother in London to my mother on the death of her 10-month-old daughter (whose little brother had also died two years before): only to try and remember in Thankfulness the absolute joy and safety of our babes till we are allowed to go to see them and see what God has provided for his little ones in the Nursery of Heaven . . . I was startled even to find in the British Library my father’s application for early retirement, pleading that he’d been with my mother for only seven out of eighteen years’ married life and hadn’t seen his 11-year-old son (me) for more than a month since I was 5 years old.

The tiny account books are evidence of my mother’s principled thrift to the last halfpenny. I could tell what a year’s coal bill was and compare it with the cost of meat, or cigarettes, or theatre tickets. Mere pocket engagement diaries not only reveal that ‘tea with’ and ‘drinks’ made up almost the whole of the social round but even make coded reference to my mother’s unpredictable gynaecological miseries each month, which so worried my father and her. Recipe books illustrate just how food rationing challenged imagination which responded with competing concoctions of mock cream or dried and powdered eggs, and by substituting nasturtium seeds for capers and chicory for coffee.

Then, of course, there is memory. Tax it, I found, and it does wonders for you. Detail leads effortlessly back to detail without regard to triviality. How delightfully our liner’s daily elevenses changed from soup to water-ices when it reached the Red Sea and the sailors changed into all-white uniforms. How delectable in India had been that special brown bread and the chunky chocolate biscuits foil-wrapped in red, blue and gold. I recaptured the swing of the litter that carried me to hospital after I broke my arm and the lotuses in the Srinagar lake we’d boated on as I recovered. Guilts and confusions as well as pleasures reawoke as I wrote.

And eventually it was finished. Personalities, reflections, paragraphs dragooned into ten files of Microsoft Word and printed out. What next? The deathless prose could be turned into a book. Looking at the bookshops’ display tables I became conscious of each book as an artefact, and of the distinctions we make each time we handle one: some are so much more alluring than others, not just to look at, but in the satisfying way that size, shape and weight, print, pictures and paper all combine to suit their subject. There is a we of choices to make which determine the character of a book; how to make them is what publishers’ editors know. The so-called ‘publisher’ software is no substitute.

I was lucky to have a retired editor as a friend. I consulted her on what I feared might be jumbled ideas, turgid sentences, erratic syntax and unbalanced chapter lengths: we also cut out sections that might bore. She then proposed we seek, and pay for, a designer – and not, she insisted, an all-purpose generalist but a specialist book-designer. We followed a recommendation but could have consulted a publisher or the yellow pages. And with the designer began the interesting experience of the memoir-novice as apprentice publisher. So-called ‘self-publishing’ became one decision after another. (There are also the bills, of course: my venture has turned out to cost around £6,000.)

Consider the proportions of the thing. Would the hundred or so thousand words I’d come up with make a ridiculously fat, pompous-looking volume, daunting before a page was read? The designer set up and helped us solve the equation of print, layout, possible paper thickness, height and width.

At once arose the matter of pictures. Skilful use of a state-of-the-art scanner, enhancing, sharpening, reducing, enlarging, allowed us to bring into play even crumpled fragments of elderly snapshots that had seemed hopeless. Instead of photos being crammed on to bundles of shiny paper in the middle of the book, as I remembered in other unenticing amateur memoir volumes, I could have them set into the text at the appropriate point in the story. Fragments of diary or letter could go in too, to break relentless paragraphs and to allow period handwriting to match period thoughts.

Our designer even offered his own suggestion for a caption to one photo, with a lightness of tone nicely calculated to relieve earnestness in the narrative. (My wife and editor-friend have tried to catch that tone in their captioning throughout the book, not least to encourage family members in their first browsings.) Photos through the text mean printing everything on slightly ‘coated’ (shiny) paper – but not too much lest it begin to look like a coffee-table (that is, a not-really-to-be-read) book. There was the typeface (modern? solidly traditional? handsome but without claiming attention?) to be settled and its size. How much ‘leading’ or space to allow between lines and paragraphs, what headings and initial capital letters should decorate the start of chapters and should we insist that each chapter start on a right-hand page? Margins have a magic of their own: too wide and they give an unwanted Arts and Crafts impression; too narrow and they are simply mean. Setting the text slightly nearer the inside edge of the page than the outside lent a gracious air that we liked.

A stiffish paperback seemed reasonable economy, so a cover was needed. We resisted the embarrassing cliché of the author’s face, twinkling with self-satisfaction. Instead our designer turned our own tentative ideas into a collage, back and front, of facsimile letters, watercolour sketches, a telegram and hand-copied poems, partly overlaid with a snapshot of me (aged 4) picking flowers with my mother in an Indian garden.

The whole experience demonstrated that the amateur memoirist/publisher needs a real meeting of minds with designer and, later, printer. The continuous conversation, which is the publishing process, is wonderfully redeemed from tedium by the screens and electronics which allow suggestions, comments, examples and responses to fly backwards and forwards so that ideas can be sketched and rejected, resketched and accepted within an afternoon.

Two hundred and fifty copies hardly constitute a mouthwatering print-run. For a smallish, stylish, sympathetic printer we followed Slightly Foxed and, indeed, chose a paper of a shade and weight almost the same as theirs. A friend and, surprisingly, a library wanted hardbacks; could the printer bind up just half a dozen? He could. The colour of the binding, the endpapers, the title down the spine, the tinted tops of the pages, even the shade and material of the binding were the final choices to make. It was now just a matter of waiting for the delivery.

And yes, I do have a few brown paper packages left.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Patrick Coldstream 2008


About the contributor

Patrick Coldstream, half-retired with eight grandchildren, is Chairman of the Hymns Ancient and Modern publishing group and of the Church Times.

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