If someone asked me to write another book, I’d have to think twice. No, that’s not quite true but honestly, the last three years have been a mixture of fantastic highs and miserable lows all of which I am somewhat relieved to have behind me. All the same, the incredible opportunity to write an official guide about the Jurassic Coast is something I will always treasure, and, holding the finished article in my hand, I can scarcely believe I actually did it.
Getting to try on the role of author was something that happened simply as part of the job. Around four years ago we collectively decided that we needed to publish a guide to the fossils of the World Heritage Site and Richard Edmonds, my line manager at the time, said “do you fancy writing it Sam?” and I said “yeah, that sounds fun”. What followed was a rather protracted period of figuring out just what sort of book it should be. For about a year we wrangled over the issues of how to produce a book that would communicate the true variety and wonder of the coast’s palaeontological record without giving an irresponsible minority a ‘shopping list’ of places to go fossil collecting. It wasn’t just site conservation we had to be mindful of, but the risk of shining a light on fossil sites like Durlston Bay, where the cliffs are crumbling and dangerous. In the end I came up with the idea of basing the book around the Walk Through Time, explaining each of the key fossil bearing strata in chronological order. This would be quite different from our other guides, which mostly focus on showing people where to go and what to see and do. By scattering itineraries throughout the fossil book we would offer that sort of information but in a focused way, covering responsible guidance on where to go to see the fossils, highlighting local museums and steering readers away from the idea that fossil collecting is the be all and end all of a trip to the Jurassic Coast. That structure was what we stuck with, bookended (…ahem) by an introduction to explain the context of our fossil record and a final chapter discussing fossil collecting in more detail, the role it plays in site conservation and information about how to be a responsible fossil collector. One of our trustees, Denys Brunsden, casually threw in the suggestion to create a Jurassic Coast ‘tree of life’ and that can now be found tucked into the back of the book as a separate fold-out. Drawing that up was about two weeks work by itself!
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That is where it really began, with an overview structure on a single side of A3 paper. Then, in Autumn 2013, I sat down in my spare room at home, armed with a full pot of coffee and a fully charged iPod, and began to write. Just one day a week mind, I still had a job to do, but those were good times… just me and the book. It was truly a pleasure to get the chance to focus entirely on one creative project that was entirely mine. It also gave me the chance to follow a somewhat private agenda of my own. At the same time as working up the book’s structure I had been developing a philosophical approach to communicating earth heritage to the public. Its hard to articulate exactly what that approach is, its something I am still working on now, but writing a book about fossils gave me broad canvass upon which to test my ideas. In essence it involves trying to draw out how the nature of our relationship with rocks and fossils is an expression of our humanity… a little off-piste when it comes to a science book I know, but important if this coast is to be truly understood as heritage. I want our efforts to be about more than what the coast tells us about the past, it has to tell us something about who we are now. In truth there are only glimmers of that throughout the book, and I don’t know how successful I have been in communicating that deeper notion of connection. That is for the reader to decide. To be honest I would very pleased if it came through even just a little bit.
If writing the manuscript was a pleasure then sourcing the images was a nightmare. An endless slog through spread sheets and contact details to make sure all permissions were sought and agreed. It was worth it though because, really, the book hangs off its illustrations and photographs. The designer we chose was fantastic to work with and pulling the content together was a genuinely collaborative process. In other words he was very patient with a novice and willing to give my ideas a go. I had quite a strong vision for the style when I started and I have to say it has turned out just how I hoped it would. I can’t really ask for more than that.
When I take my copy and flick through it I feel a mixture of pride, disbelief and confusion… “didn’t I sit down to start writing this only a couple of weeks ago?”. And now it is about to hit the shops and the true test begins. Obviously I am anxious for it to be a success, not least because of the investment it represents, but in the end I will always be deeply thankful for being given a unique and hugely enjoyable opportunity. Anyway, my mum likes it and in the end that’s what really matters.
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