There’s a way of doing these things which, if they’re to work, you don’t tamper with. The grandmother of the watercolour notebook was, of course, Edith Holden’s Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and the style was cemented by David Bellamy’s first book, The Wild Places of Britain, not entirely coincidentally from the same publisher. There have been others since: Garth & Vicky Waite’s Island: the diary of a year on Easdale and Keith Brockie’s Wildlife Sketchbook, to name but two. The thing is not to fiddle with the layout: make it look like a sketchbook and don’t get fancy with the design. So full marks to Black’s for sitting on their hands and getting it right. It’s important because looks are everything in a book of this kind. The content is simple, there isn’t a plot or a message and, if it doesn’t look like serendipity, it’s going to look shallow.
If this was a television programme, it would be one of those semi-documentary ones where the producer apparently just points a camera at the presenter and lets them get on with it. Think Johnny Kingdom, Gavin Stamp or Jonathan Meades. All of these have an idiosyncratic style that belies the polished, corporate style of presentation and appear just to stand up and talk directly to the viewer. There’s more to it than that, of course, because if all TV was live and unedited it would be full of pauses, fluffs, diversions and corrections. The editor’s hand has to be there to cut all the good stuff into a coherent narrative.
The same applies to books. If Jennie Hale started her notebook on page one and worked through to the end, then there would be an awful lot of background material, notes, preparations, try-outs so that she got it right in the final version, but you don’t need to see all this.
What you have is an account, in simple words and pictures, of one person’s view of the natural world as it unfolded in front of her. Read between the lines and you can see that a fair amount of travelling and quite a lot of selection has gone on here, but that doesn’t matter. The effect is of looking through a window and observing rather than of going to look. The illusion is maintained by the presentation: the book is entirely hand written and illustrated and that’s what gives it its authenticity and charm because Jennie is a keen observer and a sensitive painter whose watercolours capture the essence of the plants and creatures she records without becoming mired in detail that would be inappropriate here.
This isn’t a book to judge in factual terms – it’s not about being informative in scientific terms – if it’s to succeed it has to feel right and it does. It has charm, and that’s the secret.
A&C Black 2007