Monday, November 13, 2006

Wilson Stephens: The Kennet

Wilson Stephens's 1985 non-fiction book, The Kennet, is a small book in every way. It measures about 7" x 5", and runs to 48 pages only. It contains, I would guess, less than 10,000 words, plus about 18 black and white line drawings by Gabriel White.

I found this book in the back of a dusty old junkshop, and the first question that I asked myself was, How could a book like this be economically viable? And the short answer to that is that it probably wasn't; but more of that in a moment.

The subject matter of The Kennet is the tiny English river of that name -- a river so little known that I would bet that many people who live within ten miles of it have never heard of it. The river has its source in Wiltshire, near Avebury, and it winds its way forty miles south-east to Reading, where it joins the Thames; and after that no more is heard of it.

Wilson Stephens was for many years the editor of The Field, a magazine for the hunting, shooting, and fishing brigade, and so clearly had a deep-seated love for the English countryside. Gabriel White was a minor artist who himself wrote books about Sickert and Edward Ardizzone.

Stephens chooses to describe the Kennet from the point where it joins the Thames to its source. The city of Reading, where the Kennet merges with Thames, he describes as England's Silicon Valley; this is the base area (he says) of the UK's advanced technology, and it lies half in the present and half in the future. And at the source of the Kennet we have the precise opposite: we have an area of famous prehistoric sites, and the land is more than half in the past.

It is clearly the area which surrounds the source of the Kennet which interests Stephens most, and his description of it is lyrical rather than documentary. Here, within a few square miles, we have some of the oldest and most famous prehistoric sites in the world: the English equivalent, loosely speaking, of the Pyramids.

Just to give a few examples: the Kennet, hardly more than a stream, meanders past the stone circles at Avebury (important enough to be a world heritage site), Silbury Hill, and West Kennet Long Barrow.

Stephens is impressed (and so am I) with the size and grandeur of these man-made features, which have already lasted for the best part of five thousand years. He makes the point that it would be a serious mistake to think of the people who built these constructions as primitive and uncivilised.

All in all then, The Kennet is an interesting if odd little book, which would be of interest to few, unless they live in Wiltshire, and the book would be hard to find these days, even if you wanted a copy. So why am I mentioning it?

Two reasons.

First, I note that the book was published by Muller, Blond & White, and thereby hangs. Let us begin with the firm of Frederick Muller.

The British Library records 354 books published by Frederick Muller, the first being in about 1932 (I say about because some books were undated). In the 1950s, Muller must have been quite a successful company, because it published the UK edition of Grace Matalious's Peyton Place, a book which was a big seller in the US on account of its 'racy' content. By today's standards it was about as racy as a well controlled church picnic, but you get the idea.

I had a book published by Muller myself, in 1980: Counter-coup, written under the pen-name Michael Bradford. By that time the company was clearly in some difficulty. I visited the office at one point, and was somewhat shocked by the cramped conditions in which the staff worked.

Muller at that time was owned by the UK television company HTV. But they never managed to make a success of it, and it ran up debts. There was a man called Antony White associated with the company at that time, and sometime in the early '80s he bought the company for a nominal £1. He was obliged, however, to take on the company's debt, which I seem to remember was £400,000.

I wrote another Michael Bradford book at about that time, and I was contractually obliged (I think) to offer it to Muller. Antony White took me to lunch to tell me that he didn't want to publish the book, which didn't distress me particularly because I'd made next to nothing out of the first one, and so far as I know it was never reviewed anywhere. But I thought it was odd to invite me to lunch to say no, when a letter would have sufficed.

Anyway, I see from my file that, by 1984, Frederick Muller had merged with the firm of Blond and Briggs. And, as the Wilson Stephens book demonstrates, there had, by 1985, been yet another desperate attempt to restructure and, no doubt, refinance the company, in the form of Muller, Blond & White. Unfortunately, I doubt whether The Kennet did anything to improve the firm's financial position.

At some point, all attempts to breathe life into this failing enterprise came to an end, and the firm disappeared into Hutchinson, now part of Random House, where not a trace of it can be found: not even an imprint.

It is possible that further details of the various incarnations of Muller, Blond & White can be found in Anthony Blond's recent autobiography, Jew Made in England. The publisher tells us that 'Although Blond’s various publishing enterprises all came to assorted grief, he left behind a legacy of brilliance which few others will ever match.'

And who, I wonder, is the power behind Timewell Press, the publisher of Jew Made in England? The web site is a bit coy on that point. Companies House tells us little, apart from that fact that the company was set up in 1997.

Anyway, it is perhaps worth making the point that those of us who are writers are often critical of publishers. But we ought to remember, just occasionally, that there are in this world even bigger optimists and dreamers than the writers, and they are the people who start up publishing companies, or buy them for £1 with £400,000 of accompanying debt. And quite often these people end up with rather more severe damage to themselves than that which is generated by a rejection letter.

Finally, though you will long since have forgotten, there is a second reason for mentioning Wilson Stephens's book on the Kennet. And that is that I wrote a book about Avebury myself. It was mainly a collection of photographs, with an accompanying description. What is more, I wrote it as an ebook and you can read it FREE of charge. Click here for details. (Note: it's a 4MB file, so with a broadband connection it will take a minute or so to open. On a 56K connection, you probably shouldn't bother.)

Avebury in Winter is a book that I wrote about three years ago, and published in early 2004. Looking at it now, I am slightly astonished by the speed at which bits of it have become out of date. The section at the start, on how to read a PDF file, was written because I then thought it was needed. But today, I suspect, readers are going to think it both unnecessary and condescending. And ditto for the technical notes at the end. Largely out of date, given the speed at which broadband has spread.

Whatever. You might like to have a look at Avebury in Winter just to see what can be done with an ebook if you wish to do so. But don't assume that you can make any money out of an ebook, unless it's on a topic of very broad interest.


Anonymous said...

What His Grumpiness does he does well, as with his "Avebury in Winter," which took about 20 seconds to download and is well worth it (is there any kind of publishing venture you haven't dabbled in?).

Of interest are your comments with "Avebury" in 2004, which illustrate the lightning speed growth of technology--and opportunity. Astounding, frankly.

Anonymous said...

Nice pictures indeed.
On the subject of advancing technology, if you have them saved on your computer, you should consider posting them on Flickr ( as they deserve to be shared.

pundy said...

Greatly enjoyed "Avebury In Winter". Very atmospheric. Thanks, Michael.

Unknown said...

My father in law's father chose Kennet at his name when moved upwards into the House of Lords in the 1930s. He was devoted to the area, and I would love to get hold of the book for my father in law, Wayland Kennet.

Anonymous said...

Great blog with good informations and pictures.
Thank you for this interesting blog.
I have bookmarked it.
Greetz Franz from
Limousinenservice in Munich

Anonymous said...

I'm researching Wilson Stephens for a book review. Is he still with us?

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I've never herd of this book before. I searched it on Google and find some positive reviews so I'm about to read it now.

Anonymous said...

Wilson Stephens and Gabriel White also produced books about the Great Ouse, the Thames and the Severn. All of them are lovely little volumes.