Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy

Monday, 3 February 2014

What’s most startling about reading this 1963 book on advertising is how much of the advice is still valid.

Ogilvy

There are some elements of Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy that have aged, such as a comment that women should should leave the workplace to care for their babies. There’s also reams of name-dropping, and a cosy Old Tie Club element to sections of it which sits uncomfortably with modern propriety.

The chapter on writing copy, however, could be used word-for-word for explaining succinct writing now. Most of Ogilvy’s rules on copywriting are the same as the rules on writing in plain English. This book actually made me think on how to use it the next time I’m told plain English is some modern fad…

There are even elements that apply for writing online link bait now. Ogilvy loved a numbered list more than buzzfeed does, and he knew you had to get your keywords into the headline.

The cover of the edition I got cheekily steals its design from Mad Men, the TV series that stole its entire character from this book to start with. So here’s a bonus video.

Walk the Lines, by Mark Mason

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Tube map is one of the greatest works of fiction in the world. It takes the messy reality of a scattered city and turns it into measured beats, clusters of connections and something that makes sense. Also, the map (technically a schematic) doesn’t actually show real distances between what’s above ground. I love it.
Walk the Lines cover

Mark Mason decided to follow the map above ground, walking every mile as closely as possible. Walk the Lines is the result, his travelogue of each suburb and interchange.

Initially I dove into this book with enthusiasm, much like Mason as he prepared his project and walked the first line. Then, as the lines progressed and common themes emerged (countryside, suburbia, industrial, inner city and reverse) I started to want something more than I was getting, and by the end I was dawdling along with decreasing energy.

Some stations were skipped over: perhaps something that makes sense in some of the Metroland areas but there was no Russell Square. There’s both recent and old history there. I’ve been incapable of going through it without thinking of the 2005 bomb, just as I always think of the 1987 fire when I see the stopped clock in Kings Cross tube. But go back further and walking as the pigeon flies from Russell Square to King’s Cross you go through Coram Fields and past the Foundling Hospital – one of the most heart-breaking museums in London and well worth a note in a book about London’s more obscure corners.

There’s also a couple of points where the tone shifts into a kind of moroseness, almost a “bah humbug, youth of today” element which changed Mason from the kind of person you’d like to walk the length of the Picc with and into a grumpy bloke you’d try to avoid chatting to on a bus. That may have been a consequence of his own tiredness, or my own threshold for “…and all this used to be fields” talk.

There are some wonderful sections within the book though: the chat with a cabbie-to-be on learning the knowledge includes some laugh out loud moments, and the interview with Bill Drummond about his cake circle is a joy.

There’s also some good musings on the personal maps we create of a city. I can rat run around Soho, Fitzrovia and the South Bank but even last week I was filled with a mild terror as I was going to the Barbican. I explained when I got there and found my friend that I had last visited as a sixteen year old, got lost and never dared venture back in until now.

Overall, I’d recommend this for people who like maps and That London, but do prepare yourself with some Kendal Mint Cake for some of the later sections.

Bonus recommendation: watch out for repeats of Metroland on BBC Four. The DVD goes for outrageous amounts these days…

Moranthology, by Caitlin Moran

Sunday, 26 January 2014

It’s taken me a while to pin this one down: why did I enjoy Moranthology, a set of essays by Caitlin Moran?
image

Was it the fangirly glee about Sherlock, the righteous ire about politics, or the alarmingly plausible late night conversations with her husband. In the end, the best way to illuminate why this book is worth reading is that Caitlin Moran loves libraries.

On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’.

The whole essay resonates so strongly. The idea that, as a teenager, you might come to believe you’ve read every book on the shelves of your local library. That you can order up some dream of a book through inter-library loan. For free. Well, for a minor fee for the inter library loan but still…

Unlike Caitlin, on her Midlands estate, I grew up surrounded by books. I tried to mentally count the number of bookcases we had at home the other day, and failed because I’d keep remembering another one. But once a week, I’d head down to my local library and max out my card with books. Ones I wanted to read again, ones I wanted to take a risk on, ones we didn’t have in the house and I couldn’t afford to buy. You can imagine my delight at discovering my card actually let me take out eight books at once rather than the four I thought I was allowed.

As an art student in a freezing bedsit, the heaters you could sit on in Exeter Central Library were an added bonus, as were their huge collection of vinyl and plays and screenplays and heavy books on modernist art…

There are essays in this collection I disagree with, or that made me snort with laughter, or whatever. But I’d recommend reading it for the essay on libraries alone.

You can always borrow it from one…

The Victorian Detective, by Alan Moss and Keith Skinner

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Another off the Christmas book pile, this time diving into non-fiction for a look at the Victorian Detective.

Sherlocks3

No, not that one.

Instead The Victorian Detective is a slim non-fiction volume looking at the rise of the police detective in Victorian Britain. There’s no doubt Alan Moss and Keith Skinner’s book is well-researched and fully sourced. The problem comes in if you’ve already read The Suspicion of Mr Whicher, which covers the same ground through the prism of a single case.

In attempting to avoid the grisly “true crime” style, this book skims over the cases themselves in favour of, well, HR updates on which station a detective is based in. Overall, it felt rather too dry.

Death at the Priory

Thursday, 28 October 2010

There are gaps in my to be read bookshelf. Gaps.

Not on the pulp shelf, true, but on the non-fiction and ‘proper fiction’ shelves.

Death at the Priory
James Ruddick
(Atlantic, 2001)

The Charles Bravo case is one of several notorious Victorian crimes. In 1876, Bravo took three agonised days to die of antimony poisoning. The police couldn’t find any conclusive evidence, and the coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict. Bravo himself never suggested who might have poisoned him. His wife’s companion, Mrs Cox, suggested he had commited suicide, but no-one doing that would use antimony.

Many books have been written speculating on who did it. This 2001 book by journalist James Ruddick introduces the facts of the case, works through the common theories and produces its own.

Ruddick uses the investigative skills of a journalist (the proper ones, not modern churnalism) to go back to the primary sources. He goes further, in fact, and tracks down living relatives of the key protagonists. This produces new evidence such as letters about wills which changes the standard theories about the case. If someone knew they were due to inherit a vast estate, would they still kill Bravo for threatening their financial state?

As with the Road Hill House murder*, the Bravo case intrigues as it demonstrates the passionate turmoil behind the surface veneer of an upper class Victorian household. Florence Bravo, Charles’ wife, had been married before to an alcoholoic then had an affair with a much older man before deciding she wanted respectability again. She died two years after Charles’ death, of alcohol poisoning.

The contemporary press reported the Bravo inquest verbatim, fuelling a desire for every sensationalist detail. When the inquest was due to sit on a bank holiday the crowds who showed to watch were so great the coroner had to postpone it for the day.

Ruddick covers the details concisely and puts forward a convincing case for his solution, based on the new primary material he uncovered. But some of the familial history is hearsay, so needs to be taken cautiously. Given how many people the case ruined (both in social standing and in physical health), the descendents are unlikely to be unbiased.

Still, the return to primary sources and the determination to find new evidence makes this book a good example of investigative journalism as well as a smart traipse through a true crime.


*I’m shocked to discover I’ve not reviewed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher here but suffice to say I loved it.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

Monday, 19 July 2010

I did occassionally tweet whilst reading this one:

krakatoa-elephant

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester
(Penguin, 2004)

In 1883, Krakatoa exploded. It wasn’t actually the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded but it was the first to happen with something resembling modern media to report on it. Winchester explores not only the geophysics of Krakatoa – much of which has only come to be understood in the last fifty years – but the cultural, political and botanical impact of it. Why did it blow, and why is it so iconic?

There’s a lot to unpack here and the book looks at, amongst other topics: the colonial history of the East Indies; theories of geology including plate tectonics; Darwinism and the Wallace line; undersea telegraphs; Javan and Sumatran religious beliefs; and the touring circus whose elephant trainer tried to house her upset baby elephant in her hotel room (see screencap).

Is all of this relevent? Maybe not if you just want to know what happened. The short version is that the island of Krakatoa is thrown up by two tectonic plates meeting and sometimes the pressure explodes so violently the island is destroyed. When that happened in 1883, a massive tsunami hit the coasts of Java and Sumatra resulting in a horrific loss of life. But the short version doesn’t place you there.

By delving into all the different contexts of the explosion, Winchester recreates a sense of place, time and culture and enables you to empathise with the people who witnessed Krakatoa and understand why it still resonates today. He does this with charm, self-deprecation and without becoming bogged down in the science. You’re not entirely sure where a chapter is going at first, or how it connects, but by the end you’ve gained a real understanding of a complex historical event.


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