Thursday 25 October 2012

A Custom Domain for Existential Ennui, and 100 Beautiful British '50s and '60s (and '40s and '70s) Dust Jackets

Hang up the bunting and balloons, uncork the champagne and let the drunken revelry commence, because with the addition of those Val Biro/Victor Canning wrappers the other day, I'm immensely pleased to announce that nearly seven months on from its inauguration, there are now 100 dust jackets on the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page. Woo-hoo! All very exciting, I'm sure you'll agree, and I'll be getting into how we got here and where we might be going next in a moment. But first, an announcement: to celebrate this centenary of spectacular cover art, I've gone and done something a bit radical to Existential Ennui – besides widening it and introducing a new subtitle, I mean. If you cast your eyes up to the top of your browser, you should be able to see that the URL of Existential Ennui has changed (if it hasn't, click on the masthead). Hitherto it was: – or "", or "", etc., depending on where you were in the world (Blogger, the platform on which EE resides, having introduced region-specific URLs last year). But henceforth, it shall be:

That's right: I've registered a custom domain name. It's something I've been considering for a while now, probably ever since Existential Ennui began to find its feet in 2010 as, essentially, a repository of bibliomaniacal esoterica (not to mention baseless conjecture, bad puns and prolix navel-gazing – this post being a case in point), and by the middle of last year I'd pretty much decided I wanted to take the plunge. Unfortunately, when I went to register the domain name I desired – the one I now have, – I discovered that it wasn't available. Turns out someone had bought it and was evidently looking to make some money out of it: if you keyed in that URL, you'd find a message to the effect that anyone interested in the domain name should contact the then-owners. I thought about inquiring into how much it would cost to buy it off them, whoever they were, but I figured that the very act of contacting them would put me in a weak negotiating position (yeah, check me, all Gordon Gekko) and I'd end up having to pay through the nose for the privilege of using a domain name I'd effectively already established though my own blood, sweat and tears (just Google "existential ennui" to see what I mean). Of course, I could have stuck a dash between "existential" and "ennui", or perhaps plumped for an address ending in ".net", or some variation thereof, but that didn't feel right either. So I elected to leave it and keep an eye on the situation, with a view to revisiting the idea down the line.

Fast forward to earlier this week, and on a whim I decided to check if whoever it was who had their greasy mitts on had, by some miracle, relinquished their grip. And bugger me with a broom handle, they had: the domain was available through Blogger. So, quick as a flash (actually not that quick: I mulled it over again for another day), I nabbed it.

What this will mean in practical terms is probably – hopefully – very little: all being well, any links via the old URL will eventually redirect to the new one (although you might want to update your bookmarks – that is, if anyone has bookmarked EE – just in case). But to me, somehow, it makes Existential Ennui seem more permanent. Oh, I'm sure that isn't actually the case: websites, and especially blogs, are by their very nature transitory things, and should Blogger ever fall over or vanish, I expect EE will disappear along with it (although the British Library UK Web Archive version of EE should survive). Which I guess means it must be more of a psychological thing – something to do with ".com" feeling more like a proper website than "". Whatever: as I write, the transition process is well underway. Be aware, however, that there may be some disruption and side effects – current ones being that:

a) it might look, at the moment, as though are two Existential Ennuis (as if one weren't quite enough): a ".com" version and a "" one as well. Don't ask me why that is; by all accounts it's just a thing that happens when you buy a custom domain, and will, I'm reliably informed, correct itself in time. And:

b) all of the blogs I'd gathered together in my Other Fine Blogs blogroll sidebar disappeared, so I'm having to reconstitute the list; if there are any fellow bloggers reading this who know for a fact they were listed, give me a nudge and I'll reinstate you.

UPDATE: I've since noticed another side effect.

Anyway: to the Beautiful British Book Jackets. And although as a rule I try to resist any emotions as base and vulgar as pride (it goeth before destruction, apparently), I must admit I'm pretty pleased not only to have reached 100 covers, but with the page's reception. Certainly it's proved by far the most popular part of Existential Ennui, racking up seven-and a-half-thousand hits in its own right in under seven months, which ain't too shabby. Clearly the notion of showcasing some of the best examples of dust jacket design from the 1950s and '60s has struck a chord, and the innovation – such as it is – of listing the jackets under their designers rather than authors or book titles has resulted in multiple links from Wikipedia – witness the Wikipedia pages for, among others, Graham Greene's The Quiet American and A Burnt-Out Case, Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Alistair MacLean's Ice Station Zebra and James Hadley Chase's I Would Rather Stay Poor. Indeed, whoever edited those last two pages even had the temerity to use my covers to illustrate them. Honestly. The cheek of it.

All that said, the page hasn't developed quite how I envisioned. My original intention was to showcase jackets which typified the bold, duo-tone (or restricted palette), chiaroscuro style prevalent in the '50s and '60s, i.e. wrappers by the likes Val Biro, Denis McLoughlin, Donald Green, Peter Probyn and Roy Sanford. Right from the get-go, though, I muddied the waters by including Gavin Lyall's more illustrative jacket for his own The Wrong Side of the Sky (basically because I love it), and then further muddied them by including Peter Calcott's more graphic wrapper for Francis Clifford's The Naked Runner in the second batch. Still, even though these and subsequent additions, like Kenneth Farnhill's very simple designs for Agatha Christie first editions, perhaps diluted the original intent of the page, they're still fine examples of jacket design in their own right, and I don't regret their inclusion.

One thing I came to realise as I added more and more wrappers to the page was that I'd ever-so-slightly shot myself in the foot by restricting the period covered by the gallery to the 1950s and '60s. It dawned on me that there were plenty of examples of excellent illustrated design from the 1940s and 1970s too, which was why I elected to include the odd wrapper from the latter and earlier parts of those two decades, respectively. In retrospect I probably should have called the page "Beautiful Postwar Book Jacket Design" or something (although I maintain that the '50s and '60s boast far more fine examples than the decades either side), but the URL (are we back on those again...?) has already changed once – when I took off the redundant "Existential Ennui" prefix – resulting in broken links, so I was reluctant to change it again.

Tangentially related to that is a minor lament: I haven't yet got round to including any wrappers from novels by one of my favourite authors, Ross Thomas (unlike some of my other favourite authors – stand up Donald E. Westlake and Patricia Highsmith). The two best British Thomas wrappers, to my mind, date from 1970 – Wilson Buchanan's one for The Fools in Town Are on Our Side and Kaye Bellman's one for The Brass Go-Between – both of which I could, I guess, still add to the page – except I don't think I'll be venturing beyond 100 covers. Having that number of images on one page is already, I know, proving problematic for some viewers, and for my part I'm leery of continuing to monkey about with the page behind the scenes, for fear that I could, accidentally, delete the whole bloody thing (you may mock, but I've done that many a time before with draft blog posts).

And therein lies a conundrum: if I'm not going to expand or alter the page – and I reserve the right to change my mind on that one – where next? The obvious answer is, of course, a new page! Or perhaps pages, plural. For example, I've still got wrappers I've yet to unveil by Val Biro and Denis McLoughlin – the two artists represented by the greatest number of jackets on the current page – so it makes sense to dedicate a permanent page each to them, encompassing all of their work in Beautiful British Book Jackets, plus more besides. Alternatively, I could construct a more focused page, just highlighting those restricted-palette wrappers I had in mind for the extant gallery. I could even start a paperback cover page, although given that there are countless blogs and websites devoted to pulpy paperback cover art – which would be the area I'd concentrate on – that seems a little superfluous.

In the short term, I suspect Biro and McLoughlin are the most likely options, but I do have lots of books I've not yet blogged about which also boast lovely jackets by other designers, so there'll probably be at least one other page besides those at some point. As ever, if anyone has any suggestions or preferences, let me know via the comments. For now, though, go feast your eyes on 100 Beautiful British Book Jackets from the 1950s, 1960s – and beyond...

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Val Biro Dust Jackets for Four Victor Canning Novels (Hodder & Stoughton 1958–62); Lewes Book Bargains

I've written about the relationship between authors and cover artists – how, either through happenstance or design (the latter usually on the part of the publisher or author), a particular designer will wind up creating a run of dust jackets for a particular author – once or twice before, most recently in this post on Peter Probyn's jackets for three Francis Clifford novels. Given that dust jacket designer extraordinaire Val Biro produced in the region of 3,000 wrappers in his career, probably more than any other artist, it's perhaps unsurprising that there are many, many instances where he illustrated wrappers for multiple entries in various authors' canons. Indeed, thriller novelist Victor Canning doesn't even rank among those authors who could claim ten or even twenty or more Biro jackets to their names; to my knowledge, Biro illustrated the wrappers of just four Canning novels, towards the end of Canning's time at Hodder & Stoughton.

But it so happens that I now own all four of those books – all first editions, all bought in and around my hometown of Lewes (I think; I know The Dragon Tree came from Revive All under the Needlemakers and A Delivery of Furies from the Lewes Antique Centre, but I can't for the life of me remember where the other two came from – except that I'm pretty sure it was somewhere round this way). And since the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page needs just three covers to take it up to the magic number of 100, and Canning falls within the broad remit of Existential Ennui, and I'm an admirer (and collector) of Val Biro's work (there were nine of his covers on the page even before these additions), a Canning/Biro dust jacket gallery strikes me as an entirely apt way in which to reach 100 wrappers.

Apt in another way, too; because as the sharper tools among you might have noticed, while the Beautiful British Book Jacket page needs just three wrappers to get to 100, I'm presenting four in this post. Reason being, one of the jackets, for A Delivery of Furies, has already made it onto the page – in fact it was the cover I used to introduce the page aaaalllllll the way back in March of this year. So it's kind of fitting that it's here again – in an even more vibrant, re-scanned form – along with its brethren to celebrate the centenary (sort of) of Beautiful British Book Jackets. Obviously it was all planned right from the start...

Anyway, all of the covers in this post have now been added to the Beautiful Book Jackets gallery – but hold off on the celebratory cake, balloons, jelly and ice cream for the moment, because I'll be back in a bit with a proper "reaching the 100 dust jackets milestone" post, including some thoughts on how the page has developed from the initial concept, conjecture on where it might be going next, and, quite possibly, yet another special announcement. For now, though, enjoy the Biro/Canning jackets – and follow the links on each title for some insight into the books from the excellent, incredibly thorough Victor Canning pages.

The Dragon Tree by Victor Canning (Hodder & Stoughton, 1958)

The Burning Eye by Victor Canning (Hodder & Stoughton, 1960)

A Delivery of Furies by Victor Canning (Hodder & Stoughton, 1961)

Black Flamingo by Victor Canning (Hodder & Stoughton, 1962); note Val Biro signature on front flap, obtained, in person, very recently...