The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, by Ewan Clayton, Atlantic, RRP£25, 416 pages

Charting “the story of writing” might seem an ambitious undertaking, but Ewan Clayton is up to the job. The calligrapher and professor of design has produced a fascinating account of the changes and continuities in our use of the alphabet, from its origins in ancient Egypt through to blogs and social networks.

The Golden Thread shows how historical developments influenced writing and reading. Whether considering the proliferation of notebooks during the 17th century’s scientific revolution or the effect of Romantic thought on signatures, Clayton’s study is rigorous and wide-ranging yet accessible.

But perhaps the book’s most impressive feature is the calligrapher’s expertise he brings to bear. At one point he discusses the relative merits of goose, crow and swan quills; elsewhere he explains how, “when holding up an early piece of European paper . . . you are possibly inspecting a piece of recycled medieval underwear”.

Review by Orlando Bird

A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters, edited by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison, Frances Lincoln, RRP£25, 608 pages

A London Year is an anthology of daily diary entries written by more than 200 Londoners from Tudor times to the present day. Juxtapositions create a fragmented yet coherent impression of the city: accounts of executions sit beside coronations; Soho’s gay pubs alongside a gaggle of geese in Victoria Park.

Diarists range from the famous Samuel Pepys to an 11-year-old girl, Emily Shore. In January 1684 John Evelyn described ice on the Thames so thick that “coaches, carts and horses passed over”. Virginia Woolf, on a trip to Greenwich in 1926, “burst into tears over the coat Nelson wore at Trafalgar”, and on New Year’s eve 1999, MP Oona King complains “all my life I thought I would be at a wild party at the end of the millennium. Instead I was queuing outside Stratford station.”

Like everyday life, entries can be both monotonous and vivid, but A London Year will have something to teach residents and visitors alike.

Review by Lowenna Waters

Get alerts on Travis Elborough when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article