Thursday 27 September 2012

Jo Christian

Jo Christian is retiring today. She taught me everything I know about editing books, and has been a constant source of inspiration for the last twelve years or so. She's one of those REMARKABLE PEOPLE – of whom you will probably only meet a small number in your life – whose attitude to life and attitude to their craft seamlessly merge. It will certainly be a lot duller around the office without her.

I wrote this for her leaving card:

Great editors represent one of the marvels and strengths of publishing, yet they remain a rare breed. Jo Christian is timeless. She has been here since the early days, after a varied career at Vogue and as Stanley Kubrick’s researcher-cum-governess. Now, her tattered address book is crammed with every great gardener and garden writer in the country, including Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, as well as some unusual marquesses and duchesses. 
She refers to almost all of these by a well-chosen nickname, often accompanied by an impish twinkle in her eye and some whispered morsel of gossip, because she is young at heart, a breath of fresh air in a stuffy office, making even Torriano Mews seem like an elegant address. And her youthful passion is infectious. 
Jo Christian operates in a timezone all to herself. Her work day begins on the stroke of 9.53am, when she arrives clutching a Mr Coffee large latte ‘with a Jo twist’ or a hot cross bun from Crusty Bloomers, but she works often late into the night. She takes no short-cuts, either with books or with authors. Her relationships with both are deep; she is meticulous and chaotic.
She not only has her own clock, but her own calendar. She squeezes every production schedule until it squeaks, conjuring extra days like rabbits from a hat in order to put the maximum crafted care into every page. Inexplicably, bound books arrive on her desk seemingly only a few days after she has tweaked the jacket copy for the umpteenth time.
Whether at work or play, there will never be another Jo Christian: generous, patient, funny, pragmatic, mischievous, gracious: the editor par excellence.

Friday 21 September 2012


Rob Grundel asked me to write about Fear. I said I wasn't certain I wanted to write about Fear. In doing so, I fell straight into his trap. He said I was Afraid to write about Fear.

I might have added that Tingtinglongtingtingfala follows only two editorial guidelines: I do not write about improvisation and I do not write about negative things. These are rules of thumb, however, rather than foundational principles. I break these rules often enough.

There are, of course, countless things to fear. It is surprising, then, that there is any consensus on what the feeling of fear is. After all, no one can agree on what love is. Poets and artists work themselves into a tizzy attempting to taxonomize love. Its gradations, species, aspects, names, categories, bands, etc. have been repeatedly agonized over ever since Mankind had anything to say on the matter.

It is easy to appreciate how your love of porn and brandy is a different thing from the love you have for your country, your god, or your mother, even if it is less easy to prioritize your passions usefully. Love is mutable and deceptive. We may fool ourselves into thinking we love someone. Jealous lust and pure affection can swap masks, while the object of love remains exactly the same. We don't know what we're feeling. We're idiots.

By contrast, fear is fear. Exactly the same dizzy stomach wobbles and sweats afflict those gazing at a spider in a bath, the precipice of a cliff, a stern interview panel or a beautiful woman. Some people have exactly the same feeling about Velcro as you do about rejection.

Fears can be listed as a comical set of phobias. We give them names to rationalize and externalize them. Merely acknowledging that a fear exists goes most of the way to overcoming it. This simple process gives credence to the notion that our fears are less real than we make them out to be, yet the visceral experience of fear, and its physical symptoms, shriek otherwise. Consequently, fear often goes hand-in-hand with shame, and the two reinforce each other. Like a fit of giggles, knowing you shouldn't makes it worse.

Many fears are daft, but many aren't. It is easy to understand how, for example, the fear of expressing ourselves in public – or, to be more specific, the fear of being judged for our self-expression – has roots deep in human paranoia and loneliness. The intrinsically ambiguous nature of our consciousness and of language make this a near-universal fear. Yet even this fear can be managed – if not completely overcome – and when this happens it is often accompanied by a terrific burst of formerly pent-up creative energy.

Like all loves worthy of the name, fears are largely irrational. Typically, we have no reason to fear the things that we fear, unless it is to avoid facing up to another thing, something more terrible, which we really do fear. But that one reason alone can be a powerful one. It is in our interests to imagine that we are weak, and hamstrung by humdrum insecurities. If we were to suppose the truth of the matter – that we are all brave and brilliant, capable of inspiring almost godlike depth and generosity of spirit – well, then there would be no further challenges left, other than the one we know will defeat us. The paradox is that we indulge in needless failures in order to avoid confronting a necessary one. 

What, then, is that primordial fear, for which all of these strategies and counterstrategies are merely cyphers and avatars? It is universal. It is hidden in plain sight. And – despite what you might think – it cannot be named.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Mirrors on eBay

Fascinating glimpses: photographs of mirrors, and the things reflected in them, all taken from eBay advertisements.

Thursday 13 September 2012

The London Circle Walk

A few years ago (quite a number of years ago, in fact), I was sitting in The Lock Tavern in Camden with Tim Wilson. This pub used to employ the ruse of playing painfully loud polka music at chucking out time in order to get everyone to leave. I don't know if they still do, as I haven't been back there in ages.

We were several pints into the conversation and for reasons unknown we were discussing the work of the 'land artist' Richard Long. It was he who took art into pioneering conceptual realms by calling a walk 'art', and he is particularly noted for the circles and straight lines that he would trace over stretches of countryside, both in this country and across the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia.

We argued pointlessly about how hard it would be to walk in big circles in different parts of the world, given geography and rights-of-way and that sort of thing. Much easier to walk nice geometrical shapes on the flats of Mongolia, of course. But what would happen, we asked ourselves, if we were to apply a pair of compasses to a map of London? How much zigzagging would you be forced to do in order to walk as closely as possible to an imaginary circle on the ground? What would we find along the way?

Thus, the London Circle Walk was born.

The London Circle Walk (click to see full size)

The circle's position and dimensions are partly pre-determined and partly arbitrary. There can only be one viable location for its centre: the equestrian statue of Charles I at the top of Whitehall. This traffic island, south of Trafalgar Square, was the original location of Charing Cross, and is the official centre of London. A plaque marking the spot reads:
'On the site now occupied by the statue of King Charles I was erected the original Queen Eleanor's cross a replica of which stands in front of Charing Cross station. Mileages from London are measured from the site of the original cross.'
The radius of the circle is not a round number of miles or kilometres, but instead is chosen to take advantage of convenient crossing places of the Thames. A circle that uses Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge creates a walk that fills one whole day (at least six hours, though often longer, depending on how much dawdling, sightseeing and stopping for food is done). A larger circle, crossing the Thames via the Rotherhithe Tunnel and Wandsworth Bridge, for example, would look much more geometrically perfect, but would take more than one day to complete.

Tim and I have since walked the route many times in both directions. We have agreed that, for reasons both aesthetic and practical, the walk is best done in a clockwise direction, and it is best to start at the middle of Tower Bridge (at '3 o'clock', if the circle is imagined as a clock face). The route begins by working its way south among the housing and industrial estates on either side of the Old Kent Road. Skirting the edge of Burgess Park, it runs between Kennington and Camberwell, crossing several of the large thoroughfares that slice through South London, reaching the southernmost point at Stockwell. The route then zigzags in between New Covent Garden at Nine Elms and the rail junction at Battersea, before emerging into Battersea Park, where it runs around the edge of the boating lake and up the steps to the Peace Pagoda. A small detour is needed to cross the river by Albert Bridge. Then the route ascends through Chelsea and South Kensington, round the Natural History Museum, through Imperial College and past the Royal College of Art, entering Kensington Gardens at Queen's Gate. This is the halfway point.

The walk exits at Lancaster Gate, does more zigzagging around Paddington Station and under the Marylebone Flyover, then joins Regent's Canal for a short stretch at Lisson Grove, entering Regent's Park next to the London Central Mosque. It crosses Regent's Park, and runs along the Outer Circle through the middle of London Zoo, exiting the park at Gloucester Gate. Up Parkway, through the heart of Camden Town, the route then has to do a large detour around the massive construction site still occupying the area north of King's Cross, which marks the northernmost point. Residential streets then take the walk through Barnsbury, across Islington Green and down to meet Regent's Canal again. There are some interesting back streets in the Hoxton/Shoreditch area before the route abruptly enters the City of London at Bishopsgate, runs down Petticoat Lane to Aldgate and Minories, before returning you to Tower Bridge. It is always a slightly surreal experience to return so abruptly to the point you started at earlier in the day.

The London Circle Walk contains some amazing and unexpected highlights. It also runs tantalizingly close to major well-known monuments, which it blithely ignores. There are places where shortcuts could be taken, in order to get closer to the geometric circle. All involve a degree of daring and/or illegality. Hire a boat to take you across Battersea Park boating lake to avoid going around it. Bribe a security guard to let you out the fire exit at the back of the Natural History Museum. Bring a ladder to break into London Zoo. A team of parkour enthusiasts could knock miles off the total distance. Building works currently underway suggest that the route will evolve at some point in the future, possibly bringing the walker closer to the True Circle, or further from it.

It is fascinating to observe what happens when an abstract geometrical shape is superimposed on an urban landscape, which is organized along lines that are partly rational, partly organic and partly chaotic. Different definitions of the word 'natural' come into conflict. Obviously, you are forced to think about cities in a different way, following a route that no one would normally take. As a walker, you are both bound by the constraints of the route (no deviation from the circle is permitted!) and liberated from those all-too-beaten paths that others have made. The route almost takes on a ritual quality. You cannot help but become aware of time and space, observing the linear passage of the sun across the sky as you yourself perform a symbolic tour of a cyclical universe encoded in microcosm.

In addition to this pretentious arty bollocks, the walk offers plenty of general inspiration. It offers a stark illustration of different social conditions along the way, passing both the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth and Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, for example. It includes a bus garage, a museum, a university, a giraffe enclosure, a hospital, a high-security police station and a theatre – a rich resource of material for any narrative or fiction that might aim to encompass a cross-section of London life. It is made up of concrete, water, grass, brick, glass, trees, steel and earth. It passes at least fifty pubs. And below street level lie generations of souls amid fields, streets and houses that have long vanished from view, not to mention an even more ancient geology and hydrology.

Tim is leading a group who will be setting off from Tower Bridge on Sunday 30th September at 10am sharp. Do feel free to join in. Contact him on or on 07941 861806 for further details.

Friday 7 September 2012

Judge Dredd and the Laws of Spelling

Publicity for the new Judge Dredd film, Dredd 3D, features the strapline 'Judgment is Coming'.

On some of the billboard posters, however, this is written as 'Judgement is Coming'.

Which is correct? In fact, both spelling variants are common in UK and US English. There is, however, a convention in the UK that the word 'judgment' is used in a technical sense to denote a legal pronouncement made by a judge, whereas 'judgement' is the more general term, meaning a personal estimation – a judgement of distance or of worth, for example.

As a copy editor, it is best not to be pedantic, and few people appreciate this kind of quibbling. The laws of spelling are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. This is not to say that anything goes. Laws exist to formalize ordinary usage rather than to tickle the whims of elitist nit-pickers. Meanings change, language is in flux, and internal consistency is more important than the mindless application of a dusty orthodoxy. For the sake of elegance and comprehension, a balance needs to be struck.

But then it occurred to me that the inconsistency in the Dredd 3D publicity is probably deliberate. Of course! The difference in spellings undoubtedly signals an important and subtle narrative point. In the course of the film's story, Dredd himself will be forced to wrestle with an inconsistency between the judgment it is his duty to dish out as a law enforcer and the personal judgement his conscience demands. Like a copy editor, he must learn to reconcile the two. How clever.

Judge Dredd and I have a lot in common.