Saturday, 31 October 2020

Zip Solutions

Stormy weather, Clevedon Pier, January 2017

Ever had a favourite coat, bag, or other zip-up item where the slider broke off and you thought, "Well, that's it, my favourite coat, bag, or other zip-up item is now destined for landfill..."? This happened to me recently: for some reason the top slider on a waterproof with a double zip I've worn for years suddenly developed metal-fatigue and broke away in my hand. "Well, that's it...", I thought, and began to research replacement rainwear.

Which was frustrating. It seems the fashionistas who design our clothing have decided that a wet bum and wet thighs are not, after all, the problem we pathetic wimps had thought they were for all these years, with the result that practically all wet-weather gear sold as coats – even from specialist "outdoors" manufacturers like North Face or that most traditional of purveyors of waxy kit to the huntin' and shootin' set, Barbour – now stop short just below the waist. Really? What, you weren't selling enough waterproof leggings? Or does keeping dry but looking like a dork offend your fashion sense? Well, excuse me...

These so-called "coats" – actually jackets, surely – have also become bloody expensive, what with the multiple layers of "technical" fabrics, taped seams, and all the rest of it. Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if they actually kept your important middle bits dry. I must admit I was quite tempted by the products of Swedish firm Tretorn, not least because the idea of a coat made out of "regenerated nylon from fishing nets and consumer waste found in the oceans" has a certain green cachet, but I was saved from an uncharacteristically large outlay of cash by the discovery that broken zips can easily be fixed. Wow!

I had no idea. I'd assumed that, at the very least, the old zip would have to be removed and a new one sewn in, probably by a specialist in repairing waterproofs and thus quite time-consuming and expensive. But then I stumbled across a little YouTube video, "How to Repair a Zipper With Two Sliders", put up by a firm called FixnZip. As people like to say, the clue is in the name. Basically, FixnZip (and doubtless other manufacturers of similar zip-oriented solutions) sell replacement sliders, which you simply open up with a screw mechanism, slip over the zip's teeth, and screw shut. So I bought one, put the favourite coat through a Nikwax wash cycle to re-waterproof it, and fixed the zip. Good as new! Job done.

The other useful thing I learned from this is that zips have standard sizes, and this is nearly always moulded onto the slider as a number [1]. You'll probably need to use a magnifier to find it, but it's there. Who knew? Who cared, until now?

Favourite coat, courtesy of Caterpillar,
hanging on my old office door, 2014

1. The most common sizes are 3, 5, 7, and 10. The number corresponds to the width of the teeth when closed, in millimetres. A size 5 zip, for example, has teeth that measure 5mm across when the zipper is zipped.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020


We went down to the sea at Meon Shore on Sunday afternoon, where we encountered an exhilarating autumnal mix of sunshine, strong wind, and torrential downpours. The Solent often seems to generate spectacular cloud formations and rapidly changing light conditions, and Sunday was no exception. On such days the photographs take themselves. Well, almost.

Meanwhile, however, completely unknown to us, or to the dogwalkers, the bird-watchers, or the hardy windsurfers riding the waves, a high-seas drama was taking place just over the other, south-east side of the Isle of Wight (that's the IoW on the horizon in these photographs), where seven stowaways from Nigeria were intimidating the crew of an oil tanker sufficiently violently for them to lock themselves in the so-called "citadel", a safe strongroom installed in tankers for just such eventualities. Unfortunately for the stowaways, the Special Boat Service – the maritime equivalent of the SAS – are based just down the coast in Poole, and the attempted takeover was extinguished fairly rapidly.

Quite why stowaways would choose to make themselves known in such an attention-grabbing way in such an odd location is a mystery. And, let's be honest, the idea of hijacking an oil tanker in the Solent is the stuff of comedy, not high-tension drama. "Quickly, as fast as you can, turn this tanker around..." If you've ever taken the car-ferry from Portsmouth to France, though, you'll know how easy it is to mistake the island for the mainland, so perhaps they thought they were about to head into the Fawley refinery, and hoped somehow to escape from the ship by bullying the crew. But – like those desperate people who have concealed themselves in an airliner's outer cavities, and occasionally plummet down from the skies when the aircraft lowers its undercarriage as a dead, frozen block of ice – you have to think this was a plan that had not been thoroughly thought through.

Most mysterious of all, though, to many Brits is why this constant stream of refugees and economic migrants want to come to our overcrowded, increasingly squalid and fractious little country in the first place, to the extent of paying huge sums of money to people-smuggling gangs, who eventually pack them into death-trap container-lorries, or consign them to overcrowded rubber inflatables, in which they are sometimes given spades to row with – spades, FFS! – in what generally turn out to be ill-starred attempts to cross the Channel from France, bobbing about on the open ocean over what is said to be the busiest waterway in the world.

Apart from speaking our own parochial variety of that world language, "English", a marginally less racist culture – questionable – and a more generous benefits system – also very questionable – what on earth do we have that the French or the Germans or even the Italians do not, that is worth risking your life for? You do have to wonder whether our TV and movie exports paint a false picture of what to expect here, or perhaps some boosterist body like the British Council has been over-selling our brand somewhat. Come to Britain and... Well, what? Languish for months, sometimes years in some asylum-seekers' detention camp? Hot-bed it with a dozen other illegals in one room, cleaning hotel toilets or harvesting vegetables? Vanish into the sleazy underworld of the sex trade? It's a shitty old world, one ravaged by conflict, persecution, and injustice, where the prospect of any of that is enticing enough to cross half the globe at great expense and enormous risk, isn't it?

But on Sunday it was all happening on the other side of the island, miles out to sea, and resolved under cover of darkness, so we were oblivious until we saw the evening news. We had a really nice afternoon, and I expect the SBS lads had a terrific time, too; the tanker crew and the stowaways, not so much. So, welcome to Britain: your cell awaits you. Aren't you glad you came?

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Out, Demons, Out!

Berlin, Museum Island

Is it just me, or has the level of madness tolerated in the world gone up several notches in recent times?

One of the highlights of my visit to Berlin in March 2018 was, as usual, visiting the museums, as I reported at the time. In particular, I was impressed by those situated on the Museumsinsel ("Museum Island"), and of those the Pergamon Museum made the biggest impression. It is simply awesome. It hadn't struck me, though, as an essentially evil place; far from it.

It seems others disagree. Recently, artwork and artefacts in three museums on Museum Island have been vandalised, sprayed with an "oily substance", presumably the same apotropaic or demonicide mix of oil and myrrh used in a similar incident by two Bulgarian women in Athens. Why? Well, at least according to the Guardian, certain coronavirus deniers and QAnon fantasists believe that the Pergamon Museum is the centre of the "global satanism scene" because it holds a reconstruction of the ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. Well, of course! How could I not have noticed this? What a fool I 've been.

It gets worse. Apparently, "Attila Hildmann, a former vegan celebrity chef who has become one of Germany’s best-known proponents of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, posted messages on Telegram in August and September in which he suggested that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was using the altar for 'human sacrifices'". Uh, WTF?... How is it that such people are not in confinement somewhere secure for the criminally insane? And I'm not talking about Angela Merkel.

It explains so much. Not the human sacrifices, obviously, but the toleration of widespread asylum-grade insanity in public discourse, as if allegations of satanic practices by public figures were just, you know, a valid opinion, with no consequences in real life. Remember "pizzagate"? At least one man actually believed there were children imprisoned by Hillary Clinton for sex-trafficking purposes in a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. ... A man with an actual gun, which he actually fired. Now, it's never clear to me how far the propagators of such transparent nonsense actually believe what they say, or simply enjoy the mischief they can unleash; doubtless, they belong to the same tragic subspecies of humanity that releases malware into the internet for no better reason than adolescent malevolence. Is there anything more despicable than someone who enjoys causing real harm by cynically exploiting the stupidity and gullibility of others?

One hope for us might be that such sad cases are highly unlikely to find opportunities to breed but, unfortunately, a witless attraction to demonic malice and elaborate conspiracy theories does seem to be a basic setting of the human genome. And exploiting those inbuilt vulnerabilities – whether by means of religious hysteria or authoritarian politics – has certainly been Route One to power for millennia. Trump and his like are not exactly a new phenomenon.

Although it does suddenly occur to me: has anyone tried dousing the White House with oil and myrrh? It's been tried before, of course, back in 1967: Out, demons, out! But, in the end, simply voting always seems so much more effective; with the proviso, however, that it has to be done in the right way, of course. Which is precisely what these lunatics are trying to prevent.

Bow down before Nebuchadnezzar's Golden Image (or else...)

Wednesday, 21 October 2020


I was reading a piece in the New York Review about a new biography of Longfellow, who is perhaps the best example of a poet, eminent in his day, who does not figure prominently – if at all – in academic accounts of literary history, and yet who remains a household name even today. He's the poetic anti-matter to, say, Emily Dickinson, Longfellow's once obscure but now highly-rated American contemporary. It's a funny old game, poetry, and one which has changed radically; it's hard to imagine how a serious, published poet in the 21st century could become known for turning out popular, highly-polished, best-selling verse by the yard. I think Alice Oswald is the most serious contender for the unsought, unoffered, and unremunerated title of "heavyweight champion poet of Britain" – a straight left to the glass jaw of Simon Armitage and he's down! – but her latest is never going to be the cause of midnight queues outside Waterstones.

There were some curious facts about Longfellow in that review, which I won't rehearse: read it for yourself. But there was one thing I couldn't resist following up. Apparently, Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of "Hiawatha", titled "Hiawatha's Photographing". Now, this may be widely known in that niche community where enthusiasms for large-format photography and minor 19th-century poetry overlap, but it was news to me. Dodgson / Carroll is, of course, well-known as an enthusiastic amateur photographer – we won't dwell on his subject matter of choice, other than to say I don't think anyone today would cut him the slack offered to, say, Sally Mann – so his thoughts on the matter are first-hand and well-informed (unlike Tennyson, for example, who seems to have thought trains ran in grooves, not on rails: see that very peculiar poem, "Locksley Hall").

So here, for your enjoyment, is the first part of that parody, with the later, technical verses about collodion, hypo, etc., added in:

From Hiawatha’s Photographing, by Lewis Carroll

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

First, a piece of glass he coated
With collodion, and plunged it
In a bath of lunar caustic
Carefully dissolved in water –
There he left it certain minutes.

Secondly, my Hiawatha
Made with cunning hand a mixture
Of the acid pyrro-gallic,
And of glacial-acetic,
And of alcohol and water
This developed all the picture.

Finally, he fixed each picture
With a saturate solution
Which was made of hyposulphite
Which, again, was made of soda.
(Very difficult the name is
For a metre like the present
But periphrasis has done it.)

All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.

There's more... Lots more. It's all on the Web, however, so check it out, if it piques your interest. As Carroll himself wrote, "In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of 'The Song of Hiawatha'". In that rhythmic regard the relentless Hiawatha tom-tom beat is rather like the hip-hop or rap of its time, I suppose. But that first stanza is great, isn't it? (although a modern ear would probably require the second line to be, "Took the camera made of rosewood"). It was clearly written by a man who'd used a view camera with the admiration of the enthusiast, and blissfully unaware that, one day, he'd be able to use his phone instead ("Phone, sir? Do you refer to Mr. Bell's ingenious device? I think you have quite misunderstood its intended purpose...").

Which reminded me of the picture below, taken on my Innsbruck residency in 2014. In the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum (Tyrolean Folk Art Museum) there is a mock-up of an early photographer's studio, complete with cameras, backdrops, and props. Within the bellows of one of the larger view cameras a little demonic couple have been placed, lit with that red glow that either gives you a warm buzz of darkroom nostalgia, or (as in my case) bad memories of rocking slopping trays of chemicals long into the night (elephant one, elephant two...). The horror, the horror...

 As with Carroll's photography, I think we should pass quickly over the disturbing Tyrolean folk-psychology evinced by the chain-clutching Queen of Hell on the right. Have we been a good boy? Thought not... No, I've looked into that mind-set before, and backed away, cautiously (see Now Wash Your Hands). And then there's the naked mannequin waiting patiently by the folksy backdrop rolls. For what? They didn't say, and I didn't ask. Maybe lonely backwoods farmers needed a fake companion to stand woodenly beside them before a "happy families" backdrop (suitably clothed, of course), or – argh – maybe the egregious Hans Bellmer dropped round from time to time. No, don't look him up, you'll regret it.

Admire, instead, some more of Carroll's lines from the same poem, which will resonate with anyone who has attempted to take a photographic portrait:
Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of ‘passive beauty.’
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.
Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;
But, when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’
Bit his lip and changed the subject.
Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.
So in turn the other sisters.

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Fourth Man in the Fire

For some reason, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego and the fiery furnace caught my attention recently (from the Bible, Daniel 3), I think because I came across the evocative expression "the fourth man in the fire". Now, I'm sure I don't really need to tell you how this one goes, but: 

Previously in the Book of Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar has made an enormous golden statue-thing, and requires everyone to prostrate themselves before it when they hear an oddly specific musical combo: "the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of musick". Wait for it... Too soon, that's a crumhorn, fool, not a sackbut! Now! So it's rather like a blend of the games Neduchadnezzar Says and Musical Idols, but with the forfeit that a failure to prostrate in a timely way will lead to you being cast forthwith into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. Everyone plays along nicely: well, you would, wouldn't you? Except for the three stubborn Jews, that is, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Uh, oh!

Nebuchadnezzar is not best pleased, so – as the three continue to refuse to take a knee before his enormous golden object (the damn thing is sixty cubits high, i.e. the best part of 30 metres, or 90 feet) – he has the furnace cranked up to seven times its normal setting – you thought it only went up to eleven? hah! – and has them dragged off by his most mighty military men in order to be cast therein, as advertised.

However... The furnace being seven times extra hot and all, the most mighty military types themselves get burned up by it in the very act of casting in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, whereas our stubborn, miraculously oven-proof heroes do not get burned at all, and in fact end up taking a casual stroll around inside the burning fiery furnace. WTF? Nebuchadnezzar is "astonied" (I thought he probably must have been) and demands: "Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God". Blimey!

So, yes, that story. I thought you probably knew it. Like so many of a dissenting Protestant heritage, I must admit I love the Old Testament. Aside from being a treasury of truly classy first names for your offspring, the King James Version is a bottomless pit of quaint and memorable locutions – Nebuchadnezzar is troubled by "the visions of mine head upon my bed" – and stories with much smiting and cursing, lions, the interpretation of strange, pre-industrial dreams, not to mention burning bushes, talking whirlwinds, floods and plagues, plus regular visits from the mysterious Watchers and the Sons of God, who were not entirely to be trusted around womenfolk. It seems God was going through an oddly interventionist (not to say exhibitionist) phase in those ancient times, and putting himself and his emissaries about a lot more than in these latter days. After all, if angels did still occasionally turn up this would surely make the evening news? Talking of which / whom, I'm sure that final "the" in Nebuchadnezzar's astonied rant should really be an "a", as in "a Son of God", one of those intermittent visitors from Heaven with some decidedly un-angelic proclivities. I suppose the King James Version translators couldn't resist slipping in that little trailer for the New Testament.

Anyway, here are some of the dozen or so pictures I've made so far. My original thought was to make a concertina book of about ten, each 30cm square, but then I realised that, with covers, that would open out to 360cm, or about 12 feet. Not quite a Nebuchadnezzar-scale of ambition, but still impractical. So I suspect this will end up as one of the many half-finished projects that clutter up my hard drive. It's fun playing with the fiery effects, though. And, yes, the similarity of these tableaux to a toy theatre has crossed my mind, and, yes, others have been here before.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Inscription Part 1

You may think of me as one of the finest undiscovered artist-photographers, printmakers, book-artists, and bloggers in Britain (oh, go on, let's pretend), but in my previous life as a public-sector wage-slave, I was a professional academic librarian whose speciality was the bibliographic description of the diverse materials that find their way into the custody of a university library. These are books in the main, obviously, but also sound recordings, photographs, videos, audio-visual teaching aids, microform reproductions, and any other "non-book" format that human ingenuity has contrived for the transmission of knowledge and entertainment. Enabling people to find these things by looking them up in a catalogue was a dark art that I studied, practised, and taught for over 30 years. I also became an acknowledged expert in the creation, construction, and handling of large computerised bibliographic data-files.

One of the first Great Teachings that has to be imparted to a neophyte cataloguer is the ability to distinguish the content from the container. Which, as W.B. Yeats knew, is not as easy as it sounds [1]. To the naive user, what they hold in their hand is "Romeo and Juliet", a play by William Shakespeare. Sure, they may be aware that it's the only edition available in the bookshop, or the cheapest, or the one on their tutor's list of recommended reading, but the process of transmission and transmutation that has led from an inky manuscript to rehearsals and stage productions, then through successive printed incarnations to the actual copy of the particular edition they are about to read – new, second-hand, a battered library copy, heavily annotated, possibly even imperfect – is rarely their concern. In a "scholarly" edition this is the dry stuff about foul copy and folios and bad quartos that figures in the prefatory material that nobody reads.

But this is the ground where the dance of content and container is conducted, and it's a dance that can seem as protracted and bafflingly inventive as an episode of Strictly. Is Shakespeare really still the author of, say, a free translation of "Romeo and Juliet" into a foreign language, or the various graphic novel versions with the text rendered into "accessible" English? Who is primarily responsible for Baz Luhrmann's film Romeo + Juliet : Shakespeare or Luhrmann? How far is West Side Story a version of Shakespeare's play? And are we talking about the stage show, or the film? Staying with film, what about Shakespeare in Love: is it a sort of commentary on the play? How should Tom Stoppard's manuscript screenplay be distinguished from but linked to the published version, or indeed to the movie or the play itself? And to what extent is the DVD of any film the same thing as the actual cans of sprocketed reels, a TV broadcast of it recorded on VHS tape, or the version streamed from Amazon Prime? [2]

Disentangling this eternal dance of content and container is, from a cataloguer's point of view, an essentially practical matter, requiring a clear head, a good general and "subject" knowledge [3], a reading ability in a number of foreign languages, a thorough grasp of a dense handbook of rules and guidelines, and a steady eye on how any prospective user of the item in hand might search for it (or indeed be helped to stumble across it), and what aspects of it should be transcribed or described, not least to distinguish this particular copy of this particular manifestation of this particular "work" from any other. It's an important job, but not a role for anyone who wants to be noticed, applauded, or rewarded. Even librarians think cataloguers are a bit, um, odd special. But in recent years the study of this material aspect of culture has piqued the interest of literary academics (finally!) and I was pleased to notice in the emailed newsletter from my old college that one of the English tutors now there, Adam Smyth, has the enviable title of Professor of English Literature and The History of the Book.

My interest went up several notches when I read that Professor Smyth is jointly responsible for a new publication venture, a journal called Inscription, "the journal of material text – theory, practice, history", described as follows:

The journal combines work by practitioners – book artists, printmakers, poets, and artists – with academic discussion, to take the study of material texts in new directions. Inscription’s focus is not just on the meanings and uses of the codex book, but also the nature of writing surfaces (papery or otherwise), and the processes of mark-marking in the widest possible sense: from hand-press printing to vapour trails in the sky; from engraved stones to digital text; and from the ancient past, to today. Issue one contains articles about 18th century engraved epitaphs; Kafka’s notebooks and writing process; missing pages in 16th century Bibles; parchment making; hand-press printing; lithography; libraries and provenance; transcriptions of bird song; and more.

Inscription is also an experiment in format, design, and typography. Issue one comes with a vinyl LP, and a specially commissioned print; the journal is printed from both ends with pages that seem to spiral; and it has a hole drilled through the middle.

Now that has my name written all over it (not literally, obvs, even though that would seem fairly appropriate in the context, but you know what I mean) so I decided to subscribe to the first two issues. I have just received Issue One, and it is a magnificent object: not so much a journal as a thick, square-foot slab of artist's book, with accompanying LP record and, yes, a hole through the middle. That's just the container, of course: a review of the actual content and its relationship to the container will have to wait until I've read / looked at / played with / listened to it.

Now, as we know, (whisper it) academics do have a bad habit of locating the life-blood of a subject, then draining it away in order to measure, weigh, and analyse it, and book-artists also have a way of taking the idea of "the book" and re-arranging it into impractical bibliographic chimeras that serve no purpose beyond "challenging" the undisputed, self-effacing usefulness of the bog-standard codex. In both cases, there is the danger of overstating the neat but ultimately sterile idea that the container is the content, but I'm hoping for better from Inscription: we'll see! Part Two of this post will follow in due course. Meanwhile, if like me you find the idea of taking a punt on this enterprise compelling – there will only be 500 copies, so you may need to be quick – here is the Inscription flyer, with subscription details:

1. "O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" (Among School Children). Extra points for knowing which song by The Eagles quotes (sorta) that famous last line.
2. As I often had to explain, for a library to have a photocopy of a Shakespeare First Folio is not the same thing as having a First Folio. No-one is going to want to fly from California to examine it.
3. Cataloguers are generally assigned specialist subject areas. Medical textbooks, however, are reserved as a punishment detail.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Cover Story

What with the weather and Covid precautions, I simply haven't been getting out as much as I usually would at this time of year. As a consequence, tinkering has been the order of the day (whatever that means), and photography (as in taking new photographs) has taken a back seat. Writing blog posts has also, um, withered on the vine a bit. Ah, metaphors! Mix and blend to taste.

One result has been that I keep creating more "decorated" page-spreads from Let's Get Lost – it's fun to do, and a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon and evening, while your partner runs a 24/7 Higher Ed call-centre in the room upstairs. I now have far more than the twelve I need for a calendar but, as I have no intention of doing all sixty pairs from the original book (and that was an edited-down selection of candidate pairings), I decided that, rather than waste them, I'd set up a Blurb "magazine" with these fantasy page-spreads actually spread across a double page. This requires a little tweaking of the original size and distribution of the page elements, but the end result looks quite promising.

Actually, the most fun I have had with this was designing the new cover you see above. Blurb magazines have no spine text, so what you see there will simply be wrapped around the 50-odd perfect-bound pages, 28cm x 22cm. There was a golden age of commercial book-binding straddling the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when gold-blocked and blind-embossed cloth bindings were de rigueur for pretty much any publication, with the more prestigious ones getting the full-on design treatment, ranging from the discreetly tasteful to the, um, exuberant. Here are a couple of examples from our own bookshelves: 

That Tennyson is the famous "Moxon Tennyson" of 1857, an edition heavily illustrated with Pre-Raphaelite engravings by the likes of Rossetti, Millais, and Holman Hunt. It's not in great condition – "foxed and water-stained", in the jargon – but then I did buy it for 7s 6d ("seven and six", or 37.5p in today's money) from a junk shop in Middle Row in Stevenage's "Old Town" when I was a teenager in the late 1960s, and it probably marks the start of my book-collecting mania. Actually, no, that would have been the three random volumes of Allen's Naturalist's Library – published in 1894, and illustrated with colour lithograph plates – that I bought from another Stevenage Old Town junk shop for 2s 6d each ("half a crown", or 12.5p) when I was eleven. In that same junk shop – next to George Brown's motorbike shop [1] – I remember coming across a box of old glass-plate photographs from some Polar expedition that I regret not buying to this day. They can't possibly have been by Frank Hurley, though! Can they?

I don't think I knew it then, but as it happens several generations of my paternal ancestors had worked as bookbinders, ranging from "pocket-book makers" in Edinburgh to my grandfather at publisher J.M. Dent's Temple Press in Letchworth where, amongst many other things, the "Everyman" books were produced. So I suppose you could say books and book-design are in my blood. Which is probably why our house is quite so full of useless but beautiful books. Sadly, my new cover will only be the picture of a luxurious cloth binding, printed onto glossy card: I dread to think what it would cost to produce something like that these days.

1. George Brown, in his day, was the most famous racer from Stevenage. Obviously, Lewis Hamilton holds that distinction now, and he's a real Stevenage boy, who grew up in the same street as me, despite what he says about the place now. Brown had a strong association with Vincent Motorcycles, which were made in a small factory pretty much within the grounds of my Stevenage grammar school, Alleyne's. If you don't know your motorbikes, you may know Richard Thompson's song, "1952 Black Lightning". That's probably quite enough links for one little note...

Friday, 2 October 2020

Calendar 2021

October? Already? That means it's high time to start thinking about this year's calendar (or next year's, I suppose, strictly speaking). As I'm sure you're aware, for the past decade I have produced a small number of copies of a simple, spiral-bound A4 calendar featuring my own artwork, for distribution as a Christmas / New Year gift for close friends and family, usually with a few spares to sell to any blog readers who declare an interest. The standard of art reproduction I choose is quite high (I use and recommend Vistaprint) so each calendar constitutes a nice little portfolio of some of the better work I have produced in the preceding year for its recipients to contemplate or ignore as they go about planning their daily lives. If nothing else, it's a nice way to be present in the domestic environment of some people I never get to see often enough.

For 2021 I've pretty much decided to choose twelve of those fantasy versions of page-spreads from my most recent book Let's Get Lost. They have been fun to do, and an opportunity to indulge my leanings towards graphic design. I'm aware that my taste is over-decorative for many, particularly those hair-shirted purists who think anything beyond a plain white setting for a photograph is a decadent distraction, probably concealing poverty of content and lack of moral rigour. Well, plenty of other calendars are available, and I'd hate to pollute the minimalist perfection of your living space, so move along, please, there's nothing for you here. Perhaps you should try Michael Kenna? Or of course, there's always the full, plain-vanilla book version of Let's Get Lost. Which, I have to say, now looks hideously white to me, to borrow a phrase.

Anyway, I have a small design issue on which I'd appreciate your input. If you look closely at the two dummy calendar pages above, you'll see that they are identical, apart from the fact that the second has taken the trompe l'oeil aspect a step further by providing a cover for the page-spread. I could have gone even further e.g. by curving the pages into the "gutter", but I like the slightly mediaeval combination of sophistication and naïveté, reminiscent of certain books of hours. So which do you prefer? With or without? It may of course turn out that some spreads benefit from the extra framing, whereas it detracts from others: a mix may be needed.

By the way, if you think you might want to buy a calendar, it would help to give me some indication of this in advance, even if only tentatively, as ordering a larger number brings the price down: it usually works out somewhere between £10 - £15 (hey, Michael Kenna's calendar costs £20, and that's pretty much a set of blank white pages, with a useless calendar – it's really just a showcase for the photographs. With mine you get loads of colours and a whole page of dates to keep track of your lively social life). It's probably best to drop me an email (see my profile at top right for my address).