I’ve spent a good part of the summer walking across Northumberland and cycling around East Anglia so Nicholas Crane’s Great British Journeys (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2008) was a good companion for some of that time. It takes eight British travel narratives from the 12th to the 20th century and retraces the steps those writers took. It’s a good read: NC seems like an accomplished navigator and researcher and his inquisitiveness inspired me to nose around on my own relatively minor travels. There is one thing that lets the book down though and it is a very common fault – the photographs.
It is nothing to do with the quality of the photographs themselves. They aren’t in fact particularly interesting which is a bit surprising since the book came out of a television series: you’d think that professional camera people would have been able to provide better outtakes. But that is by the by. The real issue is the way that the photos have been wedged into the book.
There are 250 pages or so of text and the photographs have been divided into three chunks which have been inserted apparently randomly at pages 90, 138 and 170. They are of the shiniest paper, are in several sizes and vary between landscape shots of spots mentioned in the narrative and landscape shots featuring the author. Then there are the stock photos of old maps mentioned in the narratives scattered into this sequence. The identifying text is placed wherever seems to have been most convenient and – my particular bugbear – appears to be in more than one font. some photos are laid over others and some text obscures the images. White background appears randomly.
This isn’t that unusual but it is pretty surprising in a book drawn from a documentary television series – a format which has now existed for well over half a century and which is essentially the marriage of words and images. Yet it is often done so badly: in nature programmes, travel programmes, history programmes, word and image wrestle for domination. The result is often what could have been a radio programme but with images tacked on for TV; or a series of images on television so overcooked that the soundtrack becomes mere embellishment.
Personally, I don’t think the book needed any photos – its historical nature precludes them. (Line drawings or something like on the cover would have been great.) If it had to have shots of the modern-day sites then I would have used high quality stills, probably in black and white to excite the imagination, and inserted into the text where it deserves them. Several centuries after the Chinese were affirming when they merged image and verse that the image was the host and the words inscribed on it were the guest we still seem to be struggling with the very basics of marrying the two.