Friday Book Design Blog: Deer Island, by Neil Ansell
Jonny Hannah is one of the more distinctive illustrators working in the world of book covers in the UK at the moment – not a million miles from the sort of thing you might see coming from McSweeney’s in the US, but not usually attached to the same kind of whimsy. Here his cover and internal illustrations are attached to a short, subtle and moving piece of nature writing-cum-memoir by Neil Ansell.
In fact, considering that the market is not uncluttered with writing in this and allied genres, it is a brave move on the part of Adrian Cooper, one half of independent publisher Little Toller, to put it out in what I hesitate to call a counter-intuitive jacket.
Ansell’s book is a memoir that tracks two parts of his life: firstly working with London’s homeless and then living in squats during the 1980s, and secondly on a pair of escapes to the rugged Isle of Jura (the name comes from the old Norse for Deer Island).
Here he wild-camps and sleeps in huts and bothies and the like, and finds extreme solitude, going whole days without encountering another human being, where London life – as much among the homeless as among the frenetic housed and working masses – is one lacking both privacy and low gears.
You could quite imagine a stark photograph of the Jura landscape, or a delicate line drawing (perhaps something working out of Richard Long) to go with this text, which is spare, but never grim, and humane without being sentimental. Instead, what we get is Hannah’s idiosyncratic hand-lettering and drawings, all filtered through a colour scheme that mixes bright primaries with faded tones.
The drawings all come directly from the text: a tea urn from Ansell’s time working with The Simon Community, a homeless charity in Camden; an antelope encountered in Botswana; and, taking pride of place in the central diamond (and in the narrative), an antler, a cairn and a Triumph Bonneville motorbike. The illustrations reappear on the book’s frontispiece, and some of them once again as vignettes at the start or end of chapters. The whole of the front and back jacket is repeated on the hardcover itself. The endpapers have hand-drawn maps of Camden and Jura.
In short, this is a beautiful through-designed book, that makes the utmost of its originally commissioned art, which bolsters and raises up the text it accompanies to a significant degree. Ansell might have thought of expanding his memoir to a full-length book (he’s travelled in over 100 countries, he tells us, and no doubt has anecdotes and escapades to spare) but here he has done what he wanted. He has told one story, in its two aspects. And he has done us a favour – the book is just as long as it needs to be, and no longer. And the publisher has given it the best possible frame imaginable. Deer Island is, I’d say, of roughly novella length, and “nobody publishes novellas” – let alone novella-length memoirs – yet here it is.
Deer Island is the first piece of original writing to come from Little Toller, which otherwise has made its name with its ‘Nature Classics’ series – new editions of books from the likes of Edward Thomas, Richard Mabey and Clare Leighton, with new introductions from writers such as Iain Sinclair, Carol Klein and Robert Macfarlane – who, Cooper tells me, was in some way the inspiration for the series, when in a Guardian article he called for a library of books which celebrated the particular, the parish and the parochial.
Cooper, a former film maker, and his wife Gracie, a textile and clothes designer, set up Little Toller in their home in the west Dorset hamlet of that name, originally working under the wing of The Dovecote Press, a local history publisher, but now fully independent. As such it sounds like the classic cottage industry, run by amateurs who soon stop being so, as what they do out of passion finds an audience – as Little Toller has done. (Cooper writes about Hannah’s Moby Dick scrimshaw hanging in his son’s bedroom “the same bedroom we started Little Toller in four years ago – and another one of his artworks I look at every morning when I’m on the loo.”)
I asked Cooper how the idea to branch out from the ‘Nature Classics’ came about. It came, he says, “once we realised the classic library was sustaining itself and allowing us a good relationship with readers and bookshops. New writing is many things – a challenge for us, which sharpens our senses and ways of working; it is a way of bringing a younger generation of readers to our classic list; it is a way of working with living authors whose work and attitude we admire; it is stepping into the unknown and the fear and excitement that comes with it.”
Ansell’s book, for the moment, is the only entry in this ‘Field Notes’ series. The next project for Little Toller is a series of monographs inspired by the old King Penguins, extended essays by writers made in collaboration with artists. “If you look beneath the surface of these books,” says Cooper, talking about the King Penguins, “you have something amazing – a magpie eye for subject and author that is rare in publishing these days. This is what we feel we can bring. They won’t look or feel like KP, but I hope the spirit of these books will share something with the KP, and will be always interesting in the way they explore British folk culture, landscape and wildlife.”
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