I found a first edition copy of Paul Graham’s A1: The Great North Road in a used book store in Kansas City. At the time, I was well aware of Paul Graham thanks to The Whiteness of the Whale, but hadn’t head much about his early, self published work. But the price was right ($7.50) so I jumped on it.
Moments later, out in the car, I looked it up on bookfinder and guess what? Yep. I made a great investment for my future. To this day I wonder if I should’ve taken in back in, returned it, and told the owners to sell it online or something for an appropriate price. I take solace in the fact that, yes, this is Capitalism, and their loss is my gain, and, still, I feel a bit bad about it. But only a bit…
Fast forward to 2020, and Mack started reprinting Graham’s early work and despite already having a first edition, I picked up a copy.
At time of writing, the Mack version of A1 is in its second second printing, so demand was high. The book is beautifully bound and well printed, as we would expect from Mack, and so I probably don’t need to go too far into it.
Starting in 1981, Graham travelled the length of the A1—what I think of as the British version of Route 66, albeit without the theme song, though perhaps its something both more and less than that—and photographed the general decline of the once-great road.
The A1 wasn’t unique. Most once-great trunk roads and dual carriageways—what we in the US call, mostly, state highways and farm-to-market (FM) roads—were bypassed by the National Highways and Interstates, starting in the 1960s and 70s, leaving behind the motels and cafes and auto repair places and whatnot that limp along with whatever meager traffic still passes by. Some people older than me—at time of writing, I’m 43—have some nostalgia for the great, neon and billboard-littered highways of their youth. Me, well I have nostalgia for the roads as they existed, more or less, at the time Graham photographed A1. Thing is, they still look more or less the same today. Some of the businesses moved or changed names, some of the buildings fell or were torn down and replaced with uglier bank buildings and storage places, but, and really, FM 303, the “business” route of 183 or 121, look pretty much the same today as they did in 1982, and I expect the same is true for the A1. What wasn’t killed by the Interstate persists.
Anyway. Graham’s photographs range from interior details to expansive landscapes, and, as is typical for his work, mix in a healthy dose of group and individual portraits, all in situ, more or less. I appreciate the way Graham sequences his work, and his skill is evident even in this first book. It just flows down the road, or, I guess, up: the book, like the road, begins in London’s Financial District and ends in Edinburgh. Graham avoided the usual road-trip tropes: no shots out the window, no motion blur. But he does stop for coffee or a meal, for the night, to stop off at the scenic pull-offs and look down the valley or out to sea.
Really, it’s a good book. There’s a reason Mack reprinted it, and a reason the reprint is already in its second printing.
Now. About the reprint. Given that most people have never seen the 1983 version, and that you probably never will, it’s largely moot, but the new version is larger, sharper, and bluer than the first. For landscapes, this new treatment works wonders: what was dull and typically British in the 1983 printing is lush, beautiful, sun-streaked, in ways that Britain is never, not in the imagination, anyway. But for portraits and interiors, I vastly prefer the warmer, earlier coloring.
I’ve noticed similar treatment to most all reprints I’ve had the pleasure to view side by side with the first versions. I think this results from our exposure to phones and Digital screens: they’re all cooler, bluer, sharper than reality. Sure, color matching in 1983 was hit-or-miss in ways that Pantone and X-Rite will never be. I spent many weekends and a whole summer in a Ritz Camera in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and remember how the minilab machines worked, how the technicians—including 11-year-old me—peered into that tiny screen to adjust color. I’m sure pro labs did a better job, and still, it was far different than the digital workflows labs and publishers employ today.
Sadly, the unboxing video I have is of the old, over-the-shoulder only format, so if you want a comparison, your best bet is full-screen on a proper computer or streamed to a television. But I do show the two side by side. If I had my druthers (and didn’t care about resale value or keeping things nice), I’d cut the landscapes out of the new version and paste them into the original, as the original’s landscapes are dim and sorta muddy looking. But the interiors and the people just look like what interiors and people looked like in 1981, 82, 83.
And, again, almost no one will ever see the original, so it’s moot, and I really can’t fault Graham or Mack for making the reprint look the way it does.
Overall, I rate the 2020 Mack version of A1: The Great North Road a solid and recommended 4 stars.
At time of writing, Mack have copies of the second printing of their first edition available, signed and unsigned. At $60 or $65 its a steal, at least when compared to “real” first editions, which go for $250+ on the used market unless, that is, you find one in a tiny used bookstore in Kansas City, Kansas, where the owners/pricer didn’t know what they were looking at and didn’t check Bookfinder or whatever for comparables.