Music notation may seem a world away from business books, but the parallels are striking: when music editor Elaine Gould wrote what was to become the classic reference work Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, her focus was relentlessly on the musicians who had to use those marks on the staves in performance. Good notation allows the composer’s vision and the performer’s skill to be translated without interference into the music the audience experiences.
‘My greatest joy is going along to a concert, and the composer dashing up to me from the other end of the room and saying, “Thank you!”‘
When you’re translating your expertise into a book, that focus on how the reader is going to experience and use your message is equally important. Her rigorous attention to detail is inspiring, and her reaction to seeing the finished book heart-warmingly honest – I for one can empathise with this:
‘When [they] handed me the first copy off the press, I was just so overwhelmed. It was wonderful. I hugged that book all the way back on the train to London, and I think I slept with it beside my bed. And in the morning, I looked up to see, was it really there? After all these years, was it there? And then it was there, and I thought you know what? For the rest of my life, I haven’t got to write that book again.’
More on the publication of Behind Bars: http://www.fabermusic.com/news/elaine-goulds-behind-bars-is-a-worldwide-hit-567
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today, again this is something really different and really interesting. I’m with Elaine Gould, who is a senior new music editor at Faber Music. She has worked to the scores of many of the world’s leading composers. She’s an expert in notation styles and practises. She’s sought after by composers and typesetters all around the world for her expertise and guidance in what is an increasingly complex field. Elaine is passionate about raising the standards of editing and notation, and it was this that was the driving force behind her comprehensive reference work, Behind Bars – great title – The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, which was first published in 2011, and is now in its sixth impression! So, welcome to the show, Elaine.
Elaine Gould: Well, thank you very much.
Alison Jones: Lovely to have you here, and this is, let’s just say it’s quite an unusual interview for this podcast. It has absolutely nothing to do, on the surface, with business books per se. But, Joanna Pieters, a mutual friend of ours, who hosts The Creative Life show, told me the story behind your book. And I thought it was absolutely fascinating, and she said, “Elaine would be such a great guest!”. So, can you begin by just telling us how, “Behind Bars” came about?
Elaine Gould: Ooh, well. It’s a very long story. From a very early age, I wanted to be a pianist, and I was also a calligrapher. I was very interested in writing. Writing down words and writing down music. And by the time I had finished my music degree, at Birmingham University, I knew I wanted to work with composers. I had started composing a bit, but I was fascinated by the process of putting down music. So, I thought a career as a freelance copyist, which in those days was copying out music by hand, working for major publishers in London, copying orchestral parts, big scores, graphic scores, with lots of interesting designs and calligraphy in them and also producing piano scores for operas and so on. And I had a interesting time doing that for seven years. And then the job came up at Faber Music where I could come into the office, work as a full time editor, delegating that work to other people.
Alison Jones: Oh, joy!
Elaine Gould: So that was very interesting, I had, there was already a fantastic team of music typesetters. All working by hand at that time, either with note-a-set, or just hand copying. So the standards were very varied, and some of the standards were not too brilliant in the industry, I could see. So, I thought, yes. I would like to raise these. So I would train up new copyists to work for me, or discuss ways of improving things, also the way of how to lay the music out on the page, with increasingly complex notation that composers were evolving. I had long discussions with composers about this. And then, the time came when our commissioning editor said to me … actually it was a time when there was a new GSCE syllabus coming into fruition, where there was much more emphasis on notation. And she said to me, would I like write something that would be relevant for this new syllabus? So, I said wow, that’s a fantastic opportunity, what a privilege, to be able to write something down.
So, I started off, and Music Notation for Beginners lasted for about three weeks, at which point I went back and said … “This isn’t really my area of writing, for 16 year olds, but I would love to write a book on notation. I would love to write down everything I know about it.” Because at that point, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. And I spent nearly twenty years finding out that I didn’t know everything there was, but actually finding out those answers.
Alison Jones: That’s a lovely example of the book as a personal journey, isn’t it? You start writing the book from a position of what you think is expertise, then of course you uncover all the stuff below that, that you didn’t know. That you didn’t know, you didn’t know.
Elaine Gould: That’s right. And during that time, my boss had put another book on my desk. A German publisher had sent us a script of a new notation book, and asked us if we’d be interested in writing an English version. And I looked at this, and knowing the other books that were on the market, which were thirty years old … there were two other books already there. Very solid, very good and lots of ways, but both had questions that still needed to be answered for me. And when I saw this new translation into English, of a notation book … and it really wasn’t very good at all, it was quite basic, but it didn’t answer any of the questions I needed. And I thought, you know what? I could do better than this. There is a gap in the market.
So, I persuaded the company, Faber Music, they very kindly said, okay, write what you want to and we will publish it. Which, was a great leap of faith, I must say.
So that was how it came about, and at that very same time is when music software was taking off in a big way, and the Finale and Score Systems, which were the two of the big initial typesetting systems, were coming into play. So copyists were starting to use those systems, and it was also at a time when the Sibelius was starting out, the software was being designed. The Finn twins who were designing that were looking at notation and how it all fitted together, at the same time that I was doing my early research, so we were sort of comparing notes at that same time. They got their handbook out in a couple of years, and mine took rather longer than that.
Alison Jones: It was rather bigger than that, I imagine.
Elaine Gould: It was, that’s right, yes.
Alison Jones: It’s such an interesting point in the industry. And I have to say, I have never given much thought to music notation. You know, you buy sheet music and there it is, it’s just it’s on there, and to be honest with you, it’s not terribly complex, the stuff that I get. But, actually what you’re describing is almost a move from medieval manuscript type of processes, to what we have today, which is almost fully automated. It’s an astonishing reach for one career to have embraced, isn’t it?
Elaine Gould: Yes, I mean it was, the process of writing out music, until the 1990s, was pretty much the same as it had been for the last 500 years or so. It was pen and ink, the only difference was that you might have some pre-printed stave lines on which to draw your music. But I would sit at a writing desk and write all day. And that’s what a medieval monk … not terribly different, just a bit warmer, possibly … same sort of process, very labour intensive, and only getting one chance to do things on the page without making a mess of it and having to start again.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. Tipp-ex was your friend, I imagine.
Elaine Gould: Well you couldn’t use Tipp-ex, necessarily, on some of the acetates that we used, which was onion skins called transparency, sort of like an architect’s paper.
Alison Jones: Of course, so you couldn’t put … oh, my goodness! I just realised there will be people listening to this going, Tipp-ex? What is Tipp-ex?
Elaine Gould: Yes, well, I would scrape, you could scrape the surface. This was a very hard transparent paper. You can scrape the surface off, but you can really re correct it about … well, you can correct it once. You can’t go on correcting it or you have to splice out the page. So, it was very much a craft, that by hand thing, and there were people who had a lifetime’s career of doing that. And did absolutely wonderful work. And then, that was replaced by the mid 1990s, that was pretty much all replaced by machines. But, how did you know that the machines were doing what they should do, and what you wanted them to do, and what was correct? So when I started writing the book, there were one or two composers who said, “What? Hold on, we’ve got Sibelius now, why do we need a book about notation? The machine will do it for us. It will tell us where to put things. Surely we don’t need a book anymore.”
And it was precisely because machines were controlling what you were doing, that you needed to check what they were doing. How did you know what they were doing was correct? Where they were putting information on the page?
Notation is all about putting symbols one after another, in the particular places, in the best places. So, that, when you’re reading the line, the line is fluent, the symbols are spaced well, and you get a sense of helping that to read to you as you go along with the music. So you’re not stopping and starting, you’re not stumbling over what you’re reading. You don’t want the page of music to look as if it’s a page of text where the words are too widely space and your eye falls off all the time. That is the, can be the experience of reading music that’s too widely spaced.
And computer setting does that a lot if you’re not careful. It can also crunch it up too much, so you need that intervention on the personal level. And you need to know what those boundaries are, and I spent a lot of time putting that in my book as well. About bringing together the experiences of engravers who’d passed down a lot of information through publishing houses, through the printers. Not necessarily written down all these rules, but finding out what they were and really wanting to know myself if there were rules that people could easily remember about why you should do something in a particular order, or what was acceptable spacing.
And then, a vision I had for my book was I really wanted to have music examples that trained your eye of what looks good, what is just about okay and what isn’t any good at all. So that you trained yourself, you didn’t necessarily have to spend a lot of time reading the text that I wrote. To me, reading the text about … the very dense information that I was putting down, was going to be quite tough. But if I could have lots of music examples showing you how to do things, what if you put extra symbols in here, what if you needed to put other information in here … how would it look, how would you rearrange things? And then the book ended up with 1,500 music examples, because that’s what I wanted, I wanted it to be very visual. Your answers to be visual.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Elaine Gould: They would tell the story without you having to read about the technical information all the time.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. So, what’s really coming across to me as well, is fascinating – I knew this would be interesting for business book readers – is that there’s two things. One is that you’re acting as almost the champion of, not the reader but the performer. So what you’re doing is taking the author’s intention in music, but you’re presenting it in a way that will work for the performer. Because obviously when you’re reading music it’s an active performance as well. So, you’re doing it in a way that will actually help them get the original intention, which is really interesting because it make me think about how, as a writer, you use tone of voice and examples, and also the way that you use the visual content to supplement the text, too. Partly because I imagine musicians think in music, rather than words?
Elaine Gould: Yes, I think you’ve encapsulated it perfectly, actually. It’s, you can put how you feel about the music on the page, or how much you care about how someone is going to read it, and understanding that. When I ask people, when people want to come and work for me, and they say they are typesetters, I say to them, “What do you play? What do you sing? Do you play in orchestras? Do you play chamber music? Do you play in a band? Are you experiencing music on a regular basis, are you reading it?” This is so that you don’t forget what it’s like to read. When you have machines, and the typesetting systems now, which produce beautifully fine work, and you can reduce the music to very small image sizes. And we have wonderful printing facilities nowadays, where you can print very fine lines. So the temptation is that you’ll get sucked into your computer screen, and the music gets smaller and smaller, and you put it on the music stand and it’s too small for anyone to read. And this is the greatest thing I find when I look at students’ work. They produce beautiful things and you think, hold on. You’re a double bass player, or a tympanist. Or a percussionist, you might even be reading the music behind you, because you’re surrounded by other things. How are you going to read that tiny music, and look at the middle distance, with the music and the instruments, and look at the conductor further away? And think about … when you’re typesetting and producing music as a composer … think about who it’s for and what conditions they play it in. Do they have bad light? Are they always likely to be singing this music in a church? So, is there going to be terrible light, are they going to be standing halfway behind a pillar? Which is very likely if it’s a large choral work. And can they see the conductor?
Is it in the summer, where the sunset is coming just behind the west window and blinding them in the face? Which is what I had as a cellist in one performance, where I couldn’t see the music at all. The lights were completely wrong. Are they a marching band? You know, what do they need, how big does the music have to be? Therefore, that impacts on how much information you can stuff on a page for any given time.
So you have to think about, does certain information go… can things be compressed? Can you give a violinist a four page orchestral piece because the composer hasn’t written four pages without a break? Or, do you go back to the composer and say, “Please can we just-”
Alison Jones: “Think about the poor violist!”
Elaine Gould: Especially the viola players. People with very heavy instruments. Should we think about how you can do that? So …
Alison Jones: Absolutely fascinating.
Elaine Gould: So in my book, I really wanted to get that sense, all the time and I interviewed a lot of musician, a lot of players. I went to, especially contemporary music players, and asked them what they wanted. And they would all gripe about publishers and the music that they sent, and that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and why were they expected to stand up and sing something and they’d only just got the music the previous week? And it wasn’t what they wanted or there were mistakes in there. That it hadn’t been proofread properly, or it wasn’t written in a way that they could easily hear it in their head before they had to sing it, for instance. And I said, “This, it’s right. You cannot have a sign over your head saying, ‘Sorry I only just got this music yesterday.’”
Alison Jones: No, because the audience needs it to be perfect, yeah. So, you-
Elaine Gould: Well it has to be perfect, has to look easy, no one wants to feel uncomfortable. That reflects badly on the performer. And they can’t turn the gig down, usually, at the last minute, so the publisher needs to help them. So I was all the time trying to put all of this information in, it was something that I felt was missing from other reference books, which were telling you how to do things very well, but trying to get that sense of the urgency and why it’s so important. That if you wanted a good performance, you need to have done your preparation. And given the musician the very, very best part or score that you can.
Alison Jones: And I think that relentless focus on how it is going to be used, the practicality and starting with the end in mind … let’s think about who’s reading it, is obviously what’s turned this book into … it’s something of a cult book. It is larger than your average book, isn’t it? Is it 700 pages or so?
Elaine Gould: It grew and grew and grew. Yes, I think the original contract was a sort of maximum of 60 or 70 thousand words, and I think it’s about 150 thousand. I can’t remember. It grew and grew, my striving for perfectionism meant that I wrote draft after draft, fleshed it out. Each time, everything I wasn’t sure about, I would come back. I maybe hadn’t read a chapter for a year … it was spread out, because I was working full time, the whole process of writing, spread out over weekends and holidays over a long period. The wonderful thing about that, actually, apart from the fact it drove everybody else absolutely mad …
Alison Jones: I’m thinking about your editor.
Elaine Gould: …too good, and my editors and to the point where I don’t think anyone thought I was ever going to finish it. I had the vision, I had the determination. I knew I was going to, but I wasn’t going to let anything out until I knew myself, that it was absolutely right. I was so fed up with these other books that I’d read on the subject where they’d left cliffhangers about how to do things. They said well, you can write for harp with these techniques, and they’d write out five different ways of doing something. With no commentary, no critique about what would be good in a particular situation, and that was what I was determined to get away from. That this book was going be useful for me.
I think in the end you write a book for yourself, it’s the answers that you want, and you know that they’re going to be useful to that audience. And you have that audience in mind, you know who they are. In my case, they were going to be composers and teachers and anyone dealing with notation. Publishers, editors, and you have that idea and you keep that focus, even when something is going to take a very long time. If you keep that focus, then you evolve a structure. You evolve a writing style. And then you have it there, very eventually.
Alison Jones: I think it’s also being clear about your purpose, isn’t it? Because for a lot of people, actually, speed is of the essence and less is more, and they need to get it out. But you were deliberately setting out to write, the bible, weren’t you? You wanted this to be the definitive work, when all the others were falling shorter?
Elaine Gould: Yes, yes I was slightly uncomfortable with the definitive part of it, but as a publisher I can see that you have to say that. The critics took issue with that, a little bit, because what is definitive? And you can always add a little bit about some other historical subject, which actually wasn’t my forte. So, I didn’t want to include anything that I wasn’t terribly happy about or that I didn’t feel I was an expert in.
Because there’s no point, there was plenty to say about what I did know about, in the area that I’m familiar with. Most of it, I’ve tried out. This is my life’s work, editing. I’ve tried out most of the things I suggested in my book, and discussed with composers, so I know … and player, I took a load of solutions along to players and said “What do you think of this? Give me your reactions.” So, I know what works.
This was, again, very much about reminding people, using the book to pull them back from the page and to remind them who they’re writing for, or why they’re doing it.
Alison Jones: Yes, we always use beta readers, when I’m working with authors. We always get a beta reader sort of group to test out the stuff on the ground. And exactly, taking it to people who are actually playing it is the perfect equivalent of that.
Elaine Gould: It is absolutely essential, because then you spot anything that is wrong. Or woolly. I just didn’t want any wooliness there, and actually, that’s what my readers did … when I’d finished about the fourth draft. And the book was, probably not about 700 pages, probably about 600, I had an editor and I had three very eminent musicians. So, a conductor, two composers and one very eminent teacher, reading this book cover to cover and putting their … I wanted their honest comments. And a lot of the comments were, well … “Be a bit more clear on what someone should do here, and do criticise the way composer X does this, or why this doesn’t work. Be very clear. People want guidelines.”
If you’re setting yourself up to write this book, everyone wants an expert, so you have to make yourself an expert. And of course, that’s your own self imposed pressure, is that you want everything to be right. And I knew that any single musician could open up this book at any page, read any statement and it had to be absolutely correct. So, there was no wooliness going in there at all. So, when I came back after the readers had been through it, then I did a tiny bit of restructuring. But mainly it was just honing down points, taking out anything, which just seemed to be saying something for the sake of it. If it wasn’t really important and I felt it was necessary, then it came out. Because I knew there was so much more there, and you don’t want to take out anything that’s not absolutely to the point. Or going be useful to at least more than one person.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s so interesting. And you talk about the critics carping at definitive, but actually, I was doing the research for this… there’s a lot of love out there for this book. And I looked at the quote by Simon Rattle, he called it “a wonderful monster volume”. That’s so great.
Elaine Gould: He must’ve read my mind. I have met him a few times and worked with him, but I don’t think he quite knew how much of a monster it was, that I felt it was. When I was writing it, all those years of wondering how I was ever going to find the time to finish it, you know, get to the end and go back to the beginning. And keep wanting to rewrite it and to refine it. And it did feel like a monster. It did feel like something that took me over. And, it made me pretty unwell, the stress that I imposed on myself to try to get that right. But the best piece of advice I think I ever had, was when I was about four years into it and thinking, shall I just cut my losses and just forget about it? I don’t think I really thought that seriously, but when you’re ill and you’re using all your holidays to work, it sort of felt a bit like, too hard work. And everybody said, “Finish it.” Everyone who’d written, all my creative artist friends, and their artists., composers, everyone said “Just do it. Get it finished.”
And my boss was very encouraging and she said, when I was taking so long to go through the final draft, the final proof, she said, “Elaine, I just want you to finish it, I want you to enjoy its success.” And that was lovely, she had that confidence in me, and she said, you know, “I want you to be alive and to enjoy it!” When it published, which was lovely, because not everybody had been too sure of how much of a success it would be in terms of selling, and it’s certainly surpasses everybody’s wildest dreams in terms of how many people have actually wanted to buy it, and how useful it has been to everybody.
Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s what we call a perennial seller, isn’t it? It’s in its sixth impression now.
Elaine Gould: Yes, yes indeed, we are selling more copies, year on year, and now that the biggest, our biggest market has been United States, where there are huge numbers of music colleges and universities. And it is replacing their beloved earlier notation books. Which, I think they would have been to … they’re all favourite books that they’ve grown up with that maybe the lecturers and composers have grown up with. And my book was coming along to challenge them, to replace them and I bet that took a little time. But we’re only six years into publication and sales are fantastic. And that book is getting around colleges, and I’m delighted to say it’s on all those reading lists. And as a compulsory text in many universities for composers, because that’s what I designed it for. And I’m delighted that it’s reaching that audience, that I’d hoped it would.
Alison Jones: And I think that’s fascinating, because you give a little glimpse there into what it takes, to create the book that will be the standard. It’s a very different strategy, I think, as a writer, as a creator, to putting something out that’s fast and easy and is going be commercially lucrative and spotting an opportunity. It’s a very different way of approaching it: how did it change you, the whole process? Personally and professionally, are you a different person now than you were six years ago? Or ten years ago?
Elaine Gould: Well, yes, I’m much more confident, I’d say. I’d say I was … to have got through the process, there were dark times when I thought, “I can’t write this book. I don’t think I’ve got anything to say that’s new. It’s all already been done. Am I sure I can do this?” Those were the dark, early days, and I just, I wasn’t sure I would actually live to finish it. It just felt a great burden.
So, when I went to, I asked if I could go down to our lovely printers, TJ International, in Padstow, and they publish our wonderful Faber and Faber books, the big hardbacks, and this was going to be my baby, my big hardback. I asked if could go down and see it printing. And that was the most wonderful day of my life. To see them coming off the press, they kindly allowed me to go down there, and be there.
And they were excited about it, too, especially when I told them how long it had taken me to write it, their jaws dropped. And when the guy handed me the first copy off the press, I was just so overwhelmed. It was wonderful, and I hugged that book all the way back on the train to London, and I think I slept with it beside my bed. And in the morning, I looked up to see, was it really there? After all these years, was it there? And then it was there, and I thought you know what? For the rest of my life, I haven’t got to write that book again.
But I did have to faithfully promise to all my friends and family that I would never undertake such a big project again. They saw what it did to me and how tough it was.
Alison Jones: I’m imagining that that wasn’t a tough promise to keep.
Elaine Gould: Yes. Not at all. And professionally, it’s fantastic to have that book out there. My composers, now they’re happy to take my advice, now I think, more than before because they know I’ve thought about things for such a long time.
Alison Jones: It’d be a brave person who kind of argued against your notation decision now, wouldn’t it?
Elaine Gould: Well, there is still room for individuality, and I still respect a composer who really knows what they’re doing, has had a lot of experience, and wants to write something in a different way. If they are consistent within themselves, and that’s what they’ve been doing for their whole career, I can’t take that away from them too much. But, it does allow me to say, well, actually … I think, on the whole now, people want, musicians want to read X Y, in this way. But, there’s often many ways of doing things, and there are some cases where I didn’t include absolutely every way of doing something because I didn’t think it was the best solution.
But, anyway, now I’m pleased to say that I’m able to teach, and my book precedes me. I’m able to teach courses, and of course I have a fantastic reference book for all my students to read up about what we talk about. It allows me, instead of having to teach the rules in sessions, it allows me to talk on a more advanced level on subjects in the book. And then we can come back to the book to look at, ah yes, why do you do this, why have you done that? And to advance the subject in a way, and to have more discussion about it. Which has opened up something, which I’ve rather sort of fallen into a hole, the whole discussion of notation thing. And it needs to come out because people need to read it, they need to read it fast, they need to read it on a screen sometimes now, as well. So it’s all got to be terribly clear, so that you can do all of these things.
Alison Jones: Yes, and that’s very interesting as well, because many of my authors will say, you know what, I wrote this book so I can stop having the same conversation. So go read the book, and then let’s talk about something deeper and more interesting and yeah. Exactly.
Elaine Gould: Exactly. I don’t need to write style lists for my typesetters in the same way that I had to. And my greatest joy is going along to a concert, and the composer dashing up to me from the other end of the room and saying, thank you. Which, was what several of my friends did when the book was first published, and I thought that was wonderful. These were composers and teachers, and here they had the book, that, as we say, you can throw at your students and say, this is how you do it!
Alison Jones: How wonderful, I love that! And thank you, thank you for this book. That’s what I wish for everybody listening here, that is just wonderful.
Elaine Gould: Yes, I mean I’m so pleased that, that happened. It’s very nice when you can reach the audience that you’ve written for.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. And delight them.
Elaine Gould: Yes, I think we published at the right time. When the internet is so wonderful for finding people all around the world who are composers, maybe in terribly isolated places, and they’ve been able to find the book. And it’s been able to help them, and they’ve sent me little e-mails to tell me that, which is fantastic. From all over the place, which has been a great joy!
Alison Jones: And I suppose it’s been wonderful for Faber as well, because it really enhances their reputation within music, not that they wouldn’t have a fabulous reputation, but they are now, as you say … they are the definitive work, and it’s Faber. And they were very, very wise to make that decision to let you do it, weren’t they?
Elaine Gould: Well, yes, they were a bit nervous about it, I must say. But they are so proud of it now. And I’m proud that they’re proud as well.
Alison Jones: Fantastic.
Elaine Gould: And to publish a book of that … which looks of such quality. To have a wonderful hardback of 700 pages and I helped design the cover with our lovely designer, and the inside. And I worked with our lovely designer, who’s a musician herself, is very experienced on working with music books. And she did a fantastic labour of love on that. She spent a lot of time on that, for which I’m sure she didn’t get paid. But, just so that we could lay the whole thing out, so the pages looked beautiful. So the music samples are not cramped, so that the commentary on the music samples sits on the same page. There was not a single place where the commentary on the music example, you have to turn the page. We worked on that, I even tweaked bits of text so that all the pages were the same, roughly the same length, so the music example would sit nicely and that was a great joy.
So, to me, opening up and flipping through, I smile when I do that, because I remember how much labour we put into that, and how very much it was worth it. And Faber let me have some lovely paper as well, so we have a lovely quality paper, even little end bands as well. So the finishing and the end papers are all very beautiful. And it just feels like a quality book, which is fantastic, and as far as I know, nobody’s copy has fallen apart yet!
Alison Jones: Which is great, cause I’m sure it’s been used a lot. I’m going end with that vision of you just sort of cuddling your book on the way home, I so love that. Thank you so much, Elaine that was absolutely fantastic!
Elaine Gould: Not at all, a great pleasure.