Live Wire Books, Oxfordshire, England: 2015
Long before Sir Isaac Newton used it, the metaphor of “seeing further than his contemporaries” because he “stood on the shoulders of giants” was already a cliché; cliché or not, the phrase survives because it is useful. Way too often, we forget those who preceded us in whatever endeavor we engage in. If you build a small craft, or go adventuring in one you have modified or built for your own use, then you are standing on the shoulders of Percy Blandford. Don’t take it on my authority; I stole it from no less than Gavin Atkin and Chuck Leinweber.
Percy Blandford (1912-2014) published 113 books (this one, posthumous, makes 114) on about everything you can imagine, as far as practical skills and do-it-yourself (DIY) are concerned. A qualified naval architect, largely self-taught, he sold over 78,000 sets of plans over his lifetime, including kayaks, canoes, dinghies, trailer-sailors, powerboats, and even, in the 1960’s when you couldn’t get a manufactured one in Europe, surfboards! Many of Percy Blandford’s (PB) boat plans are still available from Clark Craft in New York, www.clarkcraft.com. The plans for Lysander, a once popular 17 foot cabin sailboat, are available from the Lysander owner’s group, lysander-owners.org.uk.
PB was, at the time of his passing, probably the most senior person in the Scouting movement worldwide. For 93 years, he was involved as a Wolf Cub, Boy Scout, and adult leader. PB even attended the first ever World Jamboree hosted by the Boy Scouts.
Not only did he train generations of Scouts and leaders, but if anyone needed to know how to make something or do something for themselves in the austere days following WW2 in the UK, they probably consulted a book written by PB. Subjects included carpentry, furniture making, blacksmithing and metal working, upholstery, net-making, knife-making, farm machinery, tool making, jewelry making, and on and so forth; just go onto Amazon or another book website, and the list will make your head swim. And, of course, books on boating, paddle craft, and small craft building will run throughout the inventory. PB also published a host of books and magazine articles in the US, using his own and pen names, a habit he got into in the UK so as to be able to publish in several DIY and woodworking magazines without his being the only name in the issue! Blandford even rated a national obituary in the Daily Telegraph.
PB’s dominance of the DIY world was just that, because he not only published in the Commonwealth nations, but was widely published in US DYI magazines and had many books in the catalog of TAB Books, a Pennsylvania publisher of every kind of handyman and DIY book you could imagine from the 1960’s to the 80’s. TAB was later bought out by a publishing house that wanted the facilities and name, but promptly dropped most of the subjects! Now they seem to only cover electronics and tech! I guess it made sense to someone from a ‘business’ or financial standpoint, but the logic escapes me.
It appears, that after a very full life, PB’s grand-daughters got him to write an autobiography when he was 95, but then he didn’t bother to publish it, “because who would want to read it?” It turns out quite a few. Diane Naested, Blandford’s grand-daughter, wrote a very nice forward and had a limited number of copies printed. They may not all be gone by the time you read this, so email her at email@example.com to find out. If there is no reprint by her press, maybe a first rate UK nautical publisher, like Lodestar Books, will take notice?
So, what of the book itself? In short, the book is a delight. PB lived a life most of us can only dream about, combining craftsmanship and adventure, but a life that, if you are reading this publication, you can identify with. Blandford’s humor is dry and self-deprecating, but he went through his life always seeing difficulties as opportunities, and never failing to see and point out the absurdities. The writing style is personal, approachable, and very readable. You don’t usually expect that from someone who get’s classified as a ‘technical writer.’
I once had a professor who divided people into two categories, ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters.’ People either lumped everything they observed into a whole, seeing the big picture, but tending to ignore or downplay the discreet details; or they naturally divided everything they observed into its discreet parts, noting every one, but often overlooking the big picture, or how they all worked or fitted together. When I read A Life Full of Hobbies I get the impression that Percy Blandford was the unusual person who is both a lumper and a splitter. The chapters of this autobiography are short and readable, focused, supposedly, on a single subject, but relate easily into a single whole, the life of a man who seems supremely content. PB doesn’t seem to lose sight of the whole in the details.
Criticisms and questions are few. PB refers in the text to a ‘third’ appendix, listing all of his watercraft designs, so I assume other appendices might also list his books or publications, but there are no appendices or index at all. The text ends at 312 pages of just that, text. An email from Diane Naested, Percy’s grand-daughter who moved the book from dream to reality, said that the appendices were there until the final galleys, but were removed at the last minute. No loss to most readers, but a painful wound to a geek like me. That choice probably relates to the length of the book, which at over 300 pages will seem about right to many, but I was enjoying PB’s life so much that I could have enjoyed even more.
My last question to Diane Naested relates to a ‘curious’ coincidence that I noticed. I wrote a book review for Messing About In Boats (MAIB) back in 2013 for a reprinting of Nevil Shute’s 1960 novel Trustee From the Toolroom (OK, I know that only about two of our readers, if that, will recall that) which tells a story of an ordinary machinist, who writes articles for DIY magazines, and who is thrust into a journey halfway around the world, including part of it on a homemade sailboat with no engine. Shute was an engineer by trade, turned popular novelist (he had several best-selling novels in the 1950’s and 60’s, often with some technical detail, but now mostly forgotten). The parallels between the hero of Trustee From the Toolroom and the life of Percy Blandford are striking, but not definitive. I have a hard time believing that Shute would be unaware of PB and his numerous article and books on technical subjects. Diane doesn’t know if Blandford and Shute were acquainted at any level, but she is going to read the novel and give me her opinion (and maybe even dig into it a bit, I hope).
So much for quibbles, this is a wonderful last book from someone that everyone in our community of small craft builders and adventurers owes a great deal to. Get hold of a copy soon, as the printing is limited. And again, some publisher of nautical titles should jump on this one and push it out to a large audience (maybe with the appendices?). Opportunity knocks.