Longhand – Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton is best known as a comedy script writer and actor for TV and radio and his shows have been a constant favourite of mine since he started in the 1970’s especially the BBC Radio 4 long running series Old Harry’s Game which he writes and stars in as Satan. Not a particularly obvious subject for humour but as always with Hamilton he finds a new way of looking at the character and that is what imbues him with comedy. In this book, his second novel, he takes another mythological character and brings him to life in a surprising way telling his story and allowing him to debunk a lot of the myth around him.

We first meet our hero, for hero he is even if he doesn’t like it and for reasons that swiftly become clear he shuns publicity as much as he can, frantically writing a very long letter to the woman he loves because he has to leave her and for the first time in thousands of years feels that he has to tell her why. As you can see below the joy of the book is that we get the letter, the whole book, all 349 pages of it, is handwritten, with crossings out and edits just as Malcolm would have written it.

The reader finds out almost immediately that Malcolm is actually Heracles and has lived for thousands of years always having to move on as firstly he never ages so starts to look odd to people who know him for a long time but secondly, and as it turns out more importantly, Zeus is determined he will never be happy and has tormented him throughout the millennia. The letter he writes to his darling Bess over a period of three days is funny yet also tragic; it is without doubt a love letter but also a confession and Hamilton handles the emotional roller coaster perfectly. I found myself reading late into the night as I simply didn’t want to stop finding out more about Malcolm and Bess and the ways that he tries to disguise his enormous strength and immortality from all those around them.

I have read many versions of the Greek myths so knew Heracles’s story but it isn’t necessary to know any of that before reading this book, Hamilton takes us right through the tales mainly so Malcolm can explain why they are so wrong and what really happened. It’s a brilliant idea and, to me at least, a completely original approach to mythological story telling, Malcolm is so ordinary because he has to be but his back story is one of wanton destruction and tragedy, he so despises that aspect of his early life and just wants to be ‘normal’. With Bess he has found that normality he craves but as the letter explains he is being forced to abandon the happiness he now has and at a truly awful point in time.

By the end of the book you are totally invested in the tragic love story of Malcolm and Bess, a tale that fit right in with the classical Greek mythology that Hamilton has mined for his characters’ source. We never hear from Bess in the whole book, other characters are reported verbatim but Bess is always heard through the medium of Malcolm’s letter as he explains what had just happened in the hope that she will forgive him. Fortunately we know right from the beginning that she does and that she still loves him as there is one other letter included right at the front and that is typewritten ostensibly from a firm of solicitors to the publisher. I read this first as that is where it is placed but rereading it after finishing Malcolm’s letter you understand it better.

The book is published by Unbound, a crowd funded publishing house, and I subscribed to it before Andy Hamilton even started to write, based partly on the pitch that he made on the site but also as a fan of his work over many decades I knew that he would produce something well worth reading and he has certainly delivered. As a subscriber I received a signed copy on publication and my name is in the list of around five hundred people who supported the work through to publication.

The Temple of Flora

One of the most ambitious books ever printed was a publishing disaster twice over but also one of the most beautiful books about flowers that exists, even if in far fewer numbers than was intended by either of its publishers.

20190115 temple of flora 1The sheer size of the book can be glimpsed from the clamshell box that my Folio Society edition comes in. The book weighs in at 27½ lbs (12½ kg) so is definitely in literatures heavyweight division and at 22½” x 18¼” (57cm x 46½cm) is a true giant of a volume. The original was the brainchild of Robert Thornton in the second half of the 18th century and it rapidly attracted royal patronage from not just Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) but also her son the Prince of Wales and other members of the British royal family.

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He sold it as a subscription edition from 1797 at a guinea per part (roughly £165 in today’s money) and there were planned to be lots of parts and he did keep going for several years. Thornton’s ambition was to create a botanical book that would be a National honour

which in Point of Magnificence is intended to exceed all other Works of a similar Nature on the Continent.

it was never to be finished…

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but what he did get produced is magnificent, the flower paintings are of the finest detail and there were plans to have far more than the twenty nine that were ultimately produced before Thornton was driven into bankruptcy by the sheer scale of the venture. It has to be said that the text chosen is odd, lots of long and rambling poems rather than a scholarly text which would have been preferable in my view but it is the pictures that makes this incredible book.

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There are long sections of text which presumably were intended to be broken up by the missing paintings but when you do get to the pictures the text doesn’t matter; what is important is the art, and in his way Thornton was trying to match the beauty of the flowers with literature which he perceived as equally beautiful. The fact that to modern readers the poems simply aren’t very good doesn’t mean that I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure from the book even if it is so unwieldy to actually get out and read.

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The craftsmanship that went into each painting was unbelievable expensive, Thornton commissioned the best engravers and also used the new techniques of mezzotint and aquatint which allowed a true wash of colour to be reproduced rather than relying on cross-hatched engraving which had been the standard method up to that time. Quite often his artists would use all three techniques on the same plate which vastly increased the cost especially as after printing each print was hand coloured so every page is unique to the volume that it appears in.

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You can properly judge the size of the book by the picture above which has a twelve inch (30cm) ruler resting on the open pages. The Folio Society edition that I have is the first time anyone had tried to reprint the book at its original size with all the plates in colour and as I hinted at in the opening sentence even the publishing experts of the Folio Society couldn’t make this book pay. They bought an original edition at auction and took it apart in order to do high resolution scans of each image before finally publishing this massive undertaking in 2008 in a planned edition of 1980 copies. The books were quarter bound in Nigerian goatskin with cloth on board sides with the front cover printed with a design taken from one of the pictures “The Night Blowing Cercus’.

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Fortunately for the Society with fine limited edition books like this they bind them as customers place their order as orders did not flow in. Three and a half years later in June 2011 the Production Director wrote to all purchasers of the book explaining that the edition was being cut. Far from 1980 copies just 600 actually got bound and even then they were left with books to sell from the severely truncated limitation. The remaining 1380 sets of flower prints were sold off in a buckram and cloth portfolio as an un-numbered edition. Presumably the remainder of the pages including the five decorative (non floral) plates were pulped.

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I doubt anyone will attempt to print this book at it’s original scale ever again. Collins had a go in 1951 but their edition is smaller and only twelve of the plates were colour. The Folio Society edition includes two extra loose plates intending for framing, Tulips and the Egyptian Lily both of which are shown above as they are bound within the book.

The World As It Is – A book for Subscribers

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Well actually The World as it was, as these books date from 1884 and provides a glimpse into history 130 years ago. However before looking at the book itself the main reason for selecting it is to expand on the subject of subscribers editions that I first touched on in Burghall’s Diary  That book in my collection was sold against a prospectus, ‘The World As It Is’ is a subscribers only book and helpfully whoever had the parts subsequently bound included the subscription page so we know how it was sold. After a lot of description as to the structure of the proposed two volumes the subscription page concludes as follows:

The Work will be handsomely printed on super-royal 8vo paper, and will be illustrated by above 300 engravings printed in the text; seventeen maps and diagrams printed in colours, ten coloured plates show some of the principal races of the earth and some remarkable natural phenomenons, and twenty-eight separate page engravings representing notable and remarkable localities in many lands. – making in all FIFTY-FIVE separately printed illustrations. It will be issued in Fourteen Parts, of 80 pages of letterpress, at 2s. each, or Seven Divisions in stiff paper covers at 4s. each, forming when completed two handsome large 8vo volumes. Whether viewed in the aspect of the wide range of its contents, of its educative value, its wealth of illustration, or its moderate price, this work will be found to be quite unique of its kind.

LONDON:  BLACKIE  &  SON,  49  &  50  OLD BAILEY,  EC;


Capitalisation is as printed in the document, I have used bold to represent the parts highlighted in italics in the original, this is a Victorian marketing department going full tilt. For those not familiar with the abbreviations used 8vo is a standard paper size usually written as octavo. Standard octavo paper is 9 inches high by 6 inches wide (23cm x 15cm) The pages of the book are actually 9.7 inches high by 7.2 inches wide (24.6cm x 18.4cm) which is presumably where Blackie have come up with super-royal although both super octavo and royal octavo are larger than this.

The price is given as either 14 lots of 2s. or 7 lots of 4s. s. standing for shilling so a total of 28 shillings regardless of how you had the parts. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator (which unfortunately only goes up to 2016) this ‘moderate price’ was apparently more like £159.65 in 2016 or just over £168 by 2018 adding the extra 2 years inflation. Also bear in mind that like modern magazine part works you then need binders, in fact back then you definitely did as these were literally just loose pages, especially the illustrations, and came with instructions for the bookbinder as to where the pages should go. So you would buy the remarkably solid board covers available from Blackie and then pay a bookbinder to put it all together meaning you wouldn’t see any change out of the equivalent of at least £200 probably closer to £250 for your ‘moderate’ purchase. I bought the books in the mid 1980’s and according to the price still visible inside paid £2.50 for the pair at the time, the paint stains on the boards no doubt keeping the price well down. I remember the second hand bookshop where I bought them fondly, the proprietor wrote a year code letter next to the price in all his books, A for his first year of business, B for the second etc. he had been trading for getting on for 20 years by the time I bought this and if you could find anything in the shop coded A you could have it for free.

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The books are really interesting although anyone looking at them and deciding to visit a place based on the information provided would definitely have a surprise coming; for example Swanston Street in Melbourne certainly looks different nowadays :

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It’s the illustrations that I like so much and that first attracted me to these books, that and odd bits of history that you suddenly spot whilst scanning through. The United States of America is described  as a republic consisting of 38 states and 8 territories with an organised government, besides the Indian territory, the territory of Alaska and the District of Columbia. Seeing a map with Indian Territory clearly marked instead of Oklahoma emphasise the fact that the books pre-date the ‘land runs’ of settlers into the Indian lands and are a full 23 years before the Indian Territory ceased to exist altogether when the state was created in 1907.

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The smaller illustrations within the text are also beautiful steel engravings as these two pages show, one from the Amazon basin in Brazil and the other from the Transleithan Provinces of the Austrian Empire most of which is now the independent country of Hungary with the Transylvanian region making  up the western part of Romania. You do have to know some history to even start looking places up as they may well not be under the country you expect.

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Budapest is described throughout this section as two cities Buda and Pesth (the extra h is how it is spelt in the book) and when you are there the city does feel like two distinct places even now.

The colour plates are not a strong point though, the artist who did these wasn’t really of the standard of the rest so they are a bit of a let down even though the colours are still strong, the best one by a long way is the one representing China:

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The books provide a glimpse into a world that no longer exists and for that they are fascinating. In fact they document a world that was rapidly disappearing even as it was published, so I think I will conclude this essay with what is apparently a typical Dutch interior, but is definitely is a museum piece now.

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