Formats Unpacked: One On One
How a book used a rigid format to reveal the messiness of history
This week’s unpacking marks the very first book we’ve covered. And what a brilliant format it is. When Matt mentioned he wanted to write about a book it really got me wondering why more people haven’t wanted to write about their favourite book format.
I think the answer probably has something to do with what different people think of as a format. If you work in TV or radio the word format refers to how the content is structured. Being in the business of content production that’s how we see it - more specifically we see it as narrative+structure. But most other industries see the format as being the container that the content comes in. So if you work in publishing the formats are ‘hardback’, ‘paperback’, ‘audiobook’ etc.
Anyway, back to the unpacking. My co-director and founder of Storythings, Matt Locke, wrote this with a fractured wrist. Ask him to tell you how he did it in 1001 words or less.
Over to you Matt…
What’s it called?
One On One, by Craig Brown (Book)
What’s the Format?
It’s a book made up of 101 chapters, each consisting of 1001 words, telling a circular story of chance encounters between celebrities, politicians, and other people of note over the last century. It starts with Adolf Hitler nearly being run over in 1931 by British Peer and thoroughbred horse breeder John Scott-Ellis, on the very first day that Scott-Ellis had got behind the wheel of a car. In chapter two we go back to 1923, with John Scott-Ellis meeting Rudyard Kipling in his father’s vast thirteenth-century castle in north Wales.
And so we’re off, with each encounter passing on the baton from person to person. Within seven meetings we’ve moved from Adolf Hitler to Madonna, by seven more we’re at Elizabeth Taylor, and seven encounters later we’re reading about mystic and composer George Ivanovich Gurdjieff cooking sauerkraut for architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After 101 connections, we finish where started, with the Duchess of Windsor taking tea with Adolf Hitler in the Bavarian Alps in 1937.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
There aren’t a lot of books that use a format different from chapters, footnotes and indexes. and those that do are often deliberate experiments with the form. One example is the Oulipo group, who deliberately gave themselves constraints to break free of the novels traditional structure. Oulipo member Georges Perec’s novel La Disparation is the most famous of these experiments - masterfully translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void - a novel that doesn’t use the letter ‘e’ once in the entire text (I’m slightly disappointed that the Wikipedia entry I linked to for A Void just now doesn’t obey the same rules. If any of you have a couple of hours to spare and fancy editing it, I’d be very pleased.)
One On One uses an Oulipo-style constraint, with 101 chapters telling the story of one on one encounters, with a 1001 word limit for each chapter (although Brown does cheat a little by adding footnotes). But this doesn’t feel like an art experiment. Instead, the format works perfectly for the book’s conceit - that the world is more random and chaotic than we think, and history is mostly a process of tidying it up. Instead of using a traditional linear narrative to order history, Brown’s looping structure lets the messiness of history reveal itself. The neatness of the format brings the randomness of the encounters even more to the fore.
There are a couple of other things in the format that make this such an addictive read. Each chapter is written in the present tense as if you were listening to a particularly well-connected gossip talking to you at a party. And Brown’s research is exemplary - a lot of the encounters are pieced together from multiple sources, not only from the protagonist’s diaries, but those of other people around them as well. This gives the impression that Brown is describing the scenes like a photograph - they are incredibly visceral and vivid accounts, with the furniture in the room or food in the restaurant as worthy of his attention as the celebrities themselves.
So we hear about the actor Terence Stamp meeting Prime Minister Edward Heath at the exclusive Albany residences in Piccadilly, not just from Stamp’s account, but also from art historian John Richardson, who hosted a tea for Stamp, interior designer Geoffrey Bennison and model Jean Shrimpton. In the next chapter, Edward Heath is an ambitious but dour eighteen-year-old student in Kent, marching a group of choristers up to the house of reclusive artist Water Sickert. Sickert peeks through a curtain before opening the door a crack to bellow ‘GO AWAY’.
The chapter titles place you in each moment with precision, but these are deliberately not important historical moments. One chapter title is ‘JOSEF STALIN GIVES CANDY TO MAXIM GORKY’; in another, ‘FRANCIS BACON HECKLES HRH PRINCESS MARGARET’. The picture Craig Brown paints of the twentieth century is a never-ending merry-go-round of lunches, dinners, coffees, and soirees - the humdrum routines that form the lives of all of us, even celebrities, but is rarely seen as history.
Brown makes this feel like a truer, more vivid account of the last century than many more formal history books. The last one hundred years saw the traditions of class and privilege that kept people ‘in their place’ erode, at least for some, and that made the kind of bizarre encounters Brown records possible in a way they just wouldn’t have been a hundred years earlier. This is where the culture of the twentieth century was forged - in cafés and dinner parties as much as in wars and revolutions.
It’s really hard to pick a favourite, as every chapter has a glistening detail or surprising comment that makes it delightful. The first chapter is a gem, though, as John Scott-Ellis not only nearly runs over Adolf Hitler, but meets him again a few months later at the theatre. For the rest of his life, Scott-Ellis dines out on the anecdote and wonders how history would have changed if the collision had been more severe. This sums up the book perfectly - a brush with the most terrible figure of the twentieth century becomes a dinner party anecdote for a British playboy. It’s history, but viewed through the wrong end of the telescope.
Craig Brown uses a similarly immersive format for his later book Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, a book that feels like an extended version of her chapter in One On One. As Brown notes, Princess Margaret was a Zelig-like character in the 20th century, meeting everyone and annoying most of them. Earlier this year he published One, Two, Three, Four, a similarly kaleidoscopic account of The Beatles, viewed as much through the multiple characters that surrounded them as the Fab Four themselves.
Outside of books, Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker has a similar non-linear structure, passing the narrative between characters as they bump into each other. I loved this film as an art student in the early 90s, for the same reasons I love Craig Brown’s books now - the messy randomness and intense focus on small details feel truer, and more immersive, than tidy, linear histories. As another great twentieth-century philosopher once said - “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”
Thanks to Matt for battling through the pain and delivering a brilliant unpacking. I’d love to hear from anyone with a favourite book format they’d like to unpack. A graphic novel maybe? Reference book? Manual? Sticker album?
If you’re in the content business or are re-thinking your communications strategy we’ve been running format development workshops for lots of companies over the last year. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.
Thanks for reading,