Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mystery of falling book sales solved

The book in the 1500s

The book today: So much for 'progress'

THE star of the BBC production, Wolf Hall, for me was not any of the actors: it was a small illuminated book flicked through for a few seconds about halfway through the first episode. I can't have been the only one drooling over my tea and crumpets as the brightly-coloured pages on gobsmackingly gorgeous manuscript was tantalisingly held in front of the camera. The book was typical of 16th century tomes - and I look at our books today (even our digital ones) and think "What progress? I'd rather have the 16th century book thanks".

The last five years have seen off-the-edge-of-a-cliff sales falls for printed books. Game-changing drops in revenue for publishers which must have most of the staff brushing up their CVs ready for redundancy with the next four or five years. It's only people working in local newspapers who face bleaker job prospects.

Sure, some of the decline can be blamed on people switching to digital books but to me that scene in Wolf Hall showed in one image precisely what the problem was: Today's books are dull, dull, dull. Page after page of boring 9pt Times Roman text, black on white. And Kindle experiences are no better. Black and white text on an electronic screen is no more exciting than having it on a printed page.

We've taken the book for granted and are now paying the price. Why is it that publishers think we only want bright, colourful books up til the age of 10? Thomas Cromwell's book wasn't a child's book (although his daughter lovingly caressed it). What's wrong with some illumination? Why can't a book be also a work of art? And digital publishers surely have no excuse - coloured text, moving images... they could do so much more than their 17th century counterparts but rarely do so. (My thanks to Moira Briggs for pointing me to this link on how the Wolf Hall illumination book was made).

I'll leave you with another example from the time of Henry VIII (courtesy of The British Library). It's a musical score: the words and music for a canon (round) for four voices and I can't believe the combination of music, words and pictures has ever been equalled. If Apple produced this tomorrow as the logo for their musical download app, no one would bat an eyelid..

Monday, 8 December 2014

Local newspapers and the internet - where did it all go wrong?

April 1985: The  South Bucks Star goes live on the internet. It was the dawn of an age that offered so much for local newspapers - but in the end has delivered very little of worth

I REMEMBER the excitement of the internet arriving in our lives, way back in 1994. The biggest technological development since Johannes Gutenberg tripped over a wine press and said 'Oh, that gives me an idea'. The internet promised (and delivered) publishing instantly, in full colour, around the world, for just a few pence. It was to herald a new age in publishing. So where did it all go wrong?

I look at the clunky, cluttered and chaotic websites of almost every local paper on the web and I just get depressed.  I recall the vision of 20 years ago and then see what we ended up with. The dream was smart design, instant news, links to background stories and other websites, moving pictures, interactivity... But take a look at any local newspaper website today and I suspect you will share my disappointment. 

First, you must work out what on earth the website is all about. Almost none of them say 'We are a (local newspaper) website publishing news and information about Seahaven'. And if they do, they don't tell you where Seahaven is or even which country it is in. Then you must fight your way past the flashing in-your-face ads (only advertising, it seems, has taken up the opportunity of moving images) and chaotic design to find out what you need. Even in 1984, early web designers were telling editors good navigation was vital. Why did no one listen? And why aren't they listening now?

When you get to the story you want, the disappointment is palpable. The story (and all the others on the same page) was published a few minutes ago but it relates to an event that took place a week ago. What happened to 'instant news'? There is only one static picture but it's tiny. I want to click on it and order a print but I can't.

There are no hyperlinks in the story. Was Tim Berners-Lee's work all for nothing? I want to click on the name Truman Burbank and access a quick biography - but I can't. And I want to click on the venue for a map - but again I can't.  I can only comment on a handful of stories and I need to register to do it. I'm amazed at how many papers still don't hyperlink the reporter's byline with their email address. Surely, that's a basic first step for publishing news on the web? Even when a story is uploaded with a web address, few bother to hyperlink it.

"Oh we don't want to link to other websites," say the publishers. "We might lose our readers". Too late. This short-sighted suicidal strategy shows you just don't get it. And we readers are long gone.

It's clear local papers are still publishing papers the way they have always done. The fact it's on a website makes little difference. It's like being show the discovery of television and then just sitting in front of a TV camera slowly turning the pages of a newspaper. If you think I'm exaggerating, find out how many "e-newspapers" are just pdfs of the print edition.

And don't get me started on those online stories that end... "Read the full story in this week's Seahaven Times." Did no one tell you the internet is global? I can't buy the Seahaven Times in Cumbria. Give me a link to your digital edition at least.

The adverts are 10x2s which do little more than direct me to the advertiser's website. Dull, annoying and unimaginative. The only success story is the database-driven property, jobs and motors sections which allow you to specify the type of house, price, location etc. But if this is the advertising success story, where is editorial's shining example?

And as for easily navigating around the website, forget it. "Find me a bag of potatoes," said Bob James to editors as he threw their disorganised newspapers back at them. In 2014, I should be able to type 'bag of potatoes' in a box on the home page of any local paper website and be shown local sellers, a map of where they are and a one-click buy-now button. Visit your local paper website now and try the Bob James test. Try and find potatoes, what's on at the theatre tonight, how to place an advert, or a number of other items that should be easy to find.

I'm yet to come across a good local paper website (if you have found one, do let me know) but given the state of the nation, I doubt many of them will be around for much longer. Worse, I doubt many people will miss them.

  • Alan Cleaver has spent a career in regional and national papers. With Rob Whittlesea, he published the South Bucks Star on the web in April 1994 - one of the first weekly papers in the UK to go on the web. He now lives in Cumbria.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Spotting the miraculous on your doorstep

I WAS talking to a gentleman in Cumbria a while ago about the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and he was bemoaning that you need to live in some obscure far-flung part of the world to stand a chance of winning. I pointed out that to a photographer in the rainforests of Borneo, a lonning on Britain’s north-west coast is about as remote as you can get. It’s just harder to see the unusual, miraculous or the exotic when you live beside it everyday. To me, walking down Seacross Lonning, near Cockermouth, on a spring morning with Sale Fell in the distance, a tunnel of hazel ahead of you, stitchwort and harebells on the bank and for a lamb to then come trotting down the lonning towards you is about as miraculous as it gets.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Wildlife champions

LESLEY and I are now Wildlife Champions. I can say this with certainty because we have yellow fluorescent jackets with "Wildlife Champion" emblazoned on them. And I've also taken to walking around with a clipboard just to leave people in no doubt that I am someone important. I saw a story in The Whitehaven News for Sustrans - the cycle path people - seeking volunteers to monitor the number and variety of wildlife going up and down the local cycle paths. It sounded a lovely way to spend a summer's evening: Walking the cyclepaths, counting the number of lesser spotted nightjars and waving my clipboard menacingly at any cyclists going too fast or ne'er do wells misbehaving. As it turns out, cyclists can be a bit scary when they zoom past so the fluorescent jacket is a valuable item of clothing to put on.

Yesterday was our first day out on our patch - a kilometre stretch from Cleator Moor to Moor Row station (well, the remains of it since the disused railway line now forms Route 71 of the Sustrans cycle path). It was heartening to see that Mother Nature could resist all that the worst of humanity could throw at it. Litter is everywhere - so too is dog dirt. No doubt many users of the cycle route will rightly point out that there are no rubbish bins and no doggy-bag bins. But I and many others manage to carry our rubbish home so I'm not sure that's much of an excuse. I like to see the rubbish as a positive though: it's a clear indication of how well used this route is. Indeed there were cyclists and walkers passing us at the rather of four or five every 10 minutes. I met two people I know for God's sake! There's also the added advantage that there are no cars or motorbikes to run you down. It is indeed a haven away from the mad, mad world of the A66 and A595.

We set off armed with the Eye-spy books of trees, flowers, butterflies and those weird-looking buzzy things. We're not experts but feel confident to say that the Tesco bag is probably not a native species. Fortunately, most of the birds that turned up had the decency to be ones we could identify: The Great Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Robin - amazingly the hedge sparrows (dykies as we Cumbrians call them) was strangely absent. The only one that had me puzzled was this one...
Willow warbler or chiff chaff?
which is either a Willow Warbler or  its identical twin brother, the chiff chaff. I'm minded to say Willow Warbler since there were several of them on willow trees. But also because its song was not very chiff chaffy at all. Let me know if you can identify it correctly. It was a hot sunny day so there wasn't much in the way of mammals - one dead mole to be precise. Hawthorn and willow bushes abounded along with a number of butterflies (oranged-tipped, peacock and the green veiny, black edged white ones). We'll be out about on Route 71 throughout the summer so if you're cycling down the path at furious knots beware of the Wildlife Champions in the yellow jackets - and the willow warblers.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Reviving Cumbria's holy wells

St Catherine's Holy Well, Eskdale - one of Cumbria's holy wells in danger of being lost through neglect
HAVING - with a very few other stalwarts - waxed lyrical about the beauty of Britain's holy wells for the last 30 years, I am delighted to report that a project has been launched in Cumbria to celebrate and renovate these endangered landmarks. The good news came from Father John Musther an Orthodox priest who lives in Keswick. His plan is to select a number of Cumbrian holy wells for cleaning and restoration. Then, from September 8 to 17 2014, to use volunteers from around the world along with local volunteers and expertise to restore and celebrate those wells (and bless them). It's an astonishing project but is already well advanced. I visited Fr John and his wife Jenny to find a chart with many holy wells already marked out. He has visited many of them and started speaking to the parish councils and land owners about what he wants to do. The project is led by Grampus Heritage based at Threapland in Cumbria and involves partners in Germany, Iceland, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. There is support and funding from the EU.

The first question has to be why Orthodoxy has an interest in holy wells (the established church has had something of a love hate relationship with holy wells over the centuries!). It's probably a question for Fr John to answer himself but to quote a draft of a booklet he is producing alongside the project:

"If, as we travel around Cumbria, we become aware of the early saints who lived here, of the churches they founded, of the monasteries they began, of the crosses they erected and the innumerable holy wells they used the landscape of Cumbria takes on a spiritual aspect as good, say, as the best of Wales, Cornwall and Ireland."

You won't find any arguments from me on that score! I am sure many of my holy well friends will want to help in one way or another. For now, drop me an email to to express your interest (and say how - historical research, admin or rolling your shirt sleeves up to clean up those wells!). I'll update my holy well map nearer the time with more specific  information on the wells most suited for restoration but feel free to suggest any you know about. Fr John and I are aware there are more wells than marked on this Google map but don't assume we know about your one!

This is a wonderful and exciting opportunity. Hopefully it will see many holy wells currently in danger of being lost for good, rescued and restored. I'll post here again when I have more information.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hag Lonning, Keswick

I FEEL obliged to include a lonning from the Keswick area. After all, thousands of tourists visit this town each year so if visitors are going to want to visit a lonning then they want it within trekking distance of Keswick. But good lonnings are hard to find in this locality. However, I stumbled across Hag Lonning the other day and it is in easy reach of Keswick. I knew it was in the vicinity of the hamlet of Wesco on the way to Threlkeld and stopped to ask a 'local' if she knew where it was. She had to admit she'd never heard of it but since she was from "the other side of the valley" she was not a true local. As it turned out, we were standing in Hag Lonning when I asked her the question. It was another 'truly local' couple who identified it. The lonning is the steep climb from the disused railway up to Wesco Farm. This was, in fact, at one time the main road into Keswick. But then the A66 was built and landslides led to this road becoming only a farm track. It is still tarmacked today but happily returning to a more greener state. The lonning is not the prettiest in the world but it's quite sweet and does offer fantastic views of Blencathra and the surrounding fells. Wonderful when they have their snow caps on. 

The route is a nice circular walk, about eight miles long but very easy to do. Leave Keswick east on the disused railway path and continue until you just before the tunnel. You'll see a stone railway man's hut beside a gate leading to Wesco. N.B. There are sheep running loose through this gate so put your dog on a lead and keep the gate shut after you. Head through the gate (a former railway crossing) and very quickly you'll go through another gate onto the road. Turn right and you are now on Hag Lonning. You'll cross a delightfull stone bridge before make the steep trek up to Wesco. Once at the top you have reached the end of the lonning (they typically led to farms and were used by people going for milk or meat) but carry on and you'll eventually reach Threlkeld. You can then return via the A66 (only for a few feet) and then drop down again on to the disused railway.

Why is it called Hag Lonning? I have no idea but hold our a secret wish that it's due to some hag-like ghost. I suspect, however, it will turn out that 'hag' is Old Norse for 'very steep hill'!

News on my lonnings project and more lonning links to be found at the Florence Arts website.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Pleaslands - a true lonning

PLEASLANDS lonning near Blencogo, Cumbria is a 'real' lonning. A path to a farm. The word 'lonning' is thought to have come from the ancient word 'loan' meaning a quiet or still place and was the term used for the side of the farm where the milking took place. For villagers visiting the farm for milk or meat they would have taken a path up to the 'loan', hence lonning. Pleaslands lonning is one of those curiosities which is marked on the Philips' Street Map of Cumbria. Whoever compiled this street map obviously had a soft spot for lonnings. Neither Pleaslands nor the many others they include have a sign up saying that is the name but the cartographer must have sought out the farmers to find out what they called their lanes. Coming off Pleaslands Lonning is Stone How Lonning and Outfield Lonning but these appear to be 'private' lanes. Pleaslands itself is a well-used farm track but with sizeable hedges at many points giving good habitat to the local wildlife.

For details of this and other lonnings see Cumbrian Lonnings Map.