16 JUNE 1990, Page 17


The media: Paul Johnson

on right and wrong ways to dress up culture

ACCORDING to the Independent, musi- cians are becoming worried by the growing tendency of record companies to flog classical records by designing sleeves which emphasise the youthful charms of perfor- mers of both sexes. I had myself been struck by the extraordinary campaign to promote the recording of Vivaldi cello concertos by the pretty Canadian Ofra Harnoy, which apparently quadrupled sales. The top man at the Society of Musicians was quoted as saying he was watching the new trend 'nervously'. It might be a 'necessary evil' but the Society's code relegated advertising strictly to 'ser- vices offered' and insisted it be 'tasteful and honest'. Phooey! What is tasteful anyway? Rossini got up to some extraor- dinary dodges when he was promoting his music in the early 1820s and making himself the best-known personality in Europe, not excluding Byron. And was it not the projection of Beethoven as a tragic-romantic hero which first helped to bring serious secular music to the notice of a vast middle-class public? Music is about a great many things as well as the notes and sex certainly has a place in getting the young hooked on the classics (and thus civilisation), thereby saving them from the horrors of pop.

The record companies can at least moni- tor the commercial results of their sleeve policy, since recordings of well-known works are legion and highly competitive. With book-jackets, publishers are working in the dark, though all have strong views on the subject. Last week's Bookseller had an account by the design expert Lewis Blackwell of how he and his fellow judges awarded the 1990 Coopers Deloitte- Bookseller prize for the best jacket. He wrote: 'The dichotomy of the book-jacket function can be neatly summed up: is it to attract, or to explain?' But surely the two are not alternatives. A jacket which does not to some extent explain will not attract, it will mystify. The winner they picked, Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with jacket by The Senate, seemed to me a complete turn-off. The dominant photo was not, as you might expect, of the author, but of General Pinochet, with false beard and glasses drawn over it, and the book's title was buried in small print at the bottom. There was a good deal of cunning symbolism in all this, which is no doubt why it won, but with over 1,000 books appearing on aver- age each week (just counting British titles), the roving eyes of a potential purchaser in a bookshop will not be caught for more than a few seconds by any image and will reject mysteries. In terms of actually sell- ing copies, 'such elaborate concoctions are open to the same devastating objection with which `Bobbity' Salisbury dismissed Iain MacLeod: 'Too clever by half .

You will gather I'm all for directness and simplicity in jackets though I find it as hard as anyone else to rationalise my instinctive feeling that one works and another does not. An outstanding recent example was the cover for Hugo Young's biography of Mrs Thatcher. As she is one of the most photogenic people alive, the designer must have searched long and hard to find one making her look really nasty, but he succeeded and the jacket powerfully con- veyed an unmistakable message: this is a hostile portrait of Mrs T. Normally an attacking biography does not sell well but the lady arouses such extraordinary hatreds among certain types that they will fork out cash to have their judgments reinforced. It is essential that jacket and book be in sympathy, and this means designers must read the book, a chore which many are most reluctant to face. But sometimes a sympathetic jacket merely reinforces a weakness in the book's title. When I wrote my English history, The Offshore Islanders, I went to a lot of trouble over the jacket. A photographer eventually produced a magnificent shot of the White Cliffs by going out into the Channel on a choppy day in a tiny boat, and I was delighted with the result. I later got a lot of complaints that the jacket had caused confusion, many thinking it was more a work of geography than of history. But it was the title, not the cover, that was wrong, the problem being resolved when the book was reissued as a History of the English People.

Sheer stylishness which is in sympathy with the book can be an important selling point. Broom Lynne's jackets for Anthony Powell's Music of Time novels have never been bettered. They attract by unmistak- able and distinctive style; they reinforce the tone and unity of the series and therefore make a creative contribution; and they are, indeed, part of the value of the books — no one has ever, I think, discarded one of these covers, except by accident. Another brilliant set, each diffe- rent and memorable but within a uniform design, was produced by Craig Dodd for Leslie Marchand's 11-volume edition of Byron's letters, which is one of my most precious possessions. I also like the basic design for the magnificent Bell edition of Pepys, though it would have been im- proved by using a different illustration on each volume. A well thought-out cover is important even for textbooks and academic works. It does not matter how simple and literal they are, provided they manage to combine authority with a touch of elegance. One of the most satisfying examples of such design were the severely beautiful jackets the OUP produced for the volumes in their History of England a clear case of a cover working hard for the success of a famous series.

The hardest-working covers of all, however, were the hideous yellow mons- ters with which Victor Gollancz sold both his fiction and his propaganda in the Thirties and Forties. They were certainly not tasteful, by any standards, often con- trasting the yellow with a peculiarly hectic purple, and some were less than honest too, blaring out an inflated version of the number of copies and editions in print with hucksterish glee. But no jackets ever sold more books. Necessary evils, then? That depends on what the books, contain. The morality of a jacket cannot be divorced from the morality of the book. Would you give a prize to a brilliant cover for Mein Kampf? It does not seem to me an objec- tion if Ofra Harnoy is made to look highly desirable on the sleeve of her record what matters is the quality of the music she produces on her cello.