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“Stig of the Dump” and typefaces

In this piece from last year, about my daughter reading Ian Serraillier’s “The Silver Sword”, I noted that we had a copy of the book throughout my childhood, and I never even opened it, not once. The same goes for Clive King’s “Stig of the Dump”. Unlike Serraillier’s book, which I haven’t been able to locate (and have downloaded to my Kindle instead), I dug out our 1970s Puffin edition of Clive King’s most famous work and have been ploughing through it with my 12-year-old son in recent weeks.

The eponymous Stig is a caveman, chanced upon by a boy called Barney in modern-day Kent. Last summer we went on a guided tour of Kents Cavern, a network of caves near Babbacombe in Devon, so my son has a better idea of what caves and cavemen are than he had a year ago. Just before the end of the tour you encounter a few caveman figures, arranged around a fake fire. They look very similar to Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations of Stig in the book.

Last month, while having a few drinks with my son’s godfather one evening, he was telling me about his schooldays and mentioned how he had spent what seemed like years trying to get through this book, just couldn’t get on with it at all. “Funny you should mention it,” I said, and told him of our stuttering attempts to finish it. Part of the difficulty was the size of the print and the yellowing pages of that 1970s Puffin edition. I could only read it in bright light, or with a magnifying glass, but when I bought a new copy of it (larger text, fewer words on each page) we ripped through the last few chapters, and finished it yesterday evening. It was a much more pleasurable experience. A bottle of water in my son’s schoolbag had leaked all over the original copy, and like all books that have had a thorough soaking, it will never be the same again. It gave me a good excuse to buy a new one.

Modern-day editions of children’s books are so much more readable (or easier to read) than the editions produced in my childhood: the paper is whiter, the print is larger and there are fewer words on each page.

Many years ago I used to deliver training courses on desktop publishing applications, back when more people recognized that there is a difference between desktop publishing and word processing. Part of every training course incorporated a discussion about fonts. In traditional publishing terms “font” is a combination of typeface (Garamond, Helvetica and so on), size (in points) and weight (bold, italic and so on). Thanks to word processors we now use “font” in place of the word “typeface”. I enjoyed teaching people the differences between typefaces, beyond the basics of why body text is usually set in a serif, rather than sans serif, font. I became so interested in this that I spent hours going through my bookshelves to see which typefaces had been used.

Puffin and Penguin books (which formed a large part of my “library”) always included this information on the copyright page. Most other publishers, sadly, did not. The main thing that I remember from this research is that “The Last Battle”, the last of the Narnia collection, was set differently from the rest of the series. As my 1971 edition tells me, it is set in Linotype Granjon. The other six use Monotype Garamond. The only other book on my shelves that used Granjon was DH Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”. I studied the same author’s “Women in Love” at A-Level and read both books in order; “Women in Love” is, essentially, a sequel. (Maybe I don’t need to tell you that, but I doubt that many people read Lawrence these days.) I tried re-reading “The Rainbow” in my 20s and failed to finish it, and I had struggled to read “The Last Battle” as a child. I speculated that the typeface might have added to my difficulty. Is Granjon in some way less readable than Garamond, or was it coincidental?

Inevitably, having started on this route, I have gone back to my bookshelves and become rather distracted from this piece, checking copyright pages in a variety of books. I wondered if recent editions had ditched this information but good old Puffin now provide even more information than they used to. The 1971 reprint of “Stig of the Dump” simply says: “Set in Linotype Baskerville”. The 2014 reissue goes further: “Set in 13.5 / 20.5 pt Sabon MT Std”. Even if nobody else on the planet appreciates this attention to detail, I do. It has made me feel disproportionately happy. And I’ll finish with another piece of good news. Author Clive King is still alive and, all being well, will celebrate his 93rd birthday next month, on 24 April.



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