Printers’ specimen book, 1958, Pt. 1

Mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales

Designed by Eric Fraser, originally from Curwen Press

Featuring papers with names like Glastonbury Coloured Antique Laid, Basingwerk Parchment, Chariot Cartridge and British Oak Parchment this is a gorgeous volume. The production values are incredible, arresting the senses at every level, and even now the scent of musty forest hangs among its leaves.

Drawing by Charles Mozley

Every letter is flawlessly crisp, and touching the many silks, sheens and matts of the papers makes you feel like a Tudor merchant plunging his hands into a trove of fabrics from a newly-arrived shipment.

Figurehead by A Romney; Shop by C Arthur; Initial letter R Busbridge
Illustration by Cecil Keeling
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Writers in covers: D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence in Penguin paperbacks

The jury is out these days on D H Lawrence, and yet he was as much a part of the Swinging Sixties as Mary Quant or Christine Keeler, and it’s quite entertaining to see them in the same sentence. Rightly so it would seem, as there are those who think the trial over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover kickstarted the sexual revolution of the coming decade.

There’s no doubt he chimed with the sixties’ moves towards liberation and would presumably have found an ideal home in the beardy and basic drawings of Dr Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex. And Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ naked wrestling in the 1968 film of Women in Love put him again in the front line of changing attitudes. Thinking he was able to write about a woman’s feelings was his downfall, but it can’t be denied he was ahead of his time, and even if a little barking mad, had a genuine, fully realised moment, which the Penguin paperbacks here reflect.

Sons and Lovers and The Virgin and the Gypsy were also filmed, the photographic stills above using an idealised ‘natural’ beauty so prevalent for book covers around 1970, just a step ahead of a shampoo advert. The illustrated versions are by Yvonne Gilbert (who gained a little more fame in the eighties for her racier work for the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which you might guess from The Prussian Officer) and date from the late 1970s.

The move from an advertiser’s style of photography to illustration is interesting here… before it, in the early sixties, stylised artwork was prevalent, and after it, almost hyper-real illustration gave way to the use of imagery chosen with Merchant Ivory-style attention to period detail in the eighties.

My favourite is The Trespasser, for the lovely typography (excepting the full stops) and what they do with the W, and the enigmatic, half-shadowed figure in a full summer’s meadow.

Bloghead Revisited

Why we blog – escape portal, therapy or land of our people?

Blog stalled but open to restoration.

I went back to my blog this morning, which is over seven years old. It’s bizarre to me that people still visit it… understandable, perhaps, because there are a few seemingly forgotten books and films on here that clearly live on in some people’s imaginations.

‘What kind of imagination’ was the question I vaguely asked myself when I started collecting together some of the things I was still drawn to, having a notion they were formed in the ‘imaginative culture’ of my childhood – the books, the TV and the music. These were all portals which suggested more to life than the mundane things that the adults in our lives were slaves to, popularly known as responsibilities.

But what’s the function of these portals for well-worn grown-ups? I blogged with reservations: I was determined this wasn’t nostalgia (meaning, I understand, ‘a yearning to return home’). It was relevant now, and not all those inspirations escaped derision from the ghost of my long gone 20-year-old self.

There’s a letter from a parent to a child in Tracey Thorn’s book Another Planet. What struck a chord was the line:

‘So do I have any advice for you at all? Not really. Except that, like all young people (or come to that, even old people these days), I know you worry sometimes about being cool. But don’t. Who cares really? Cool’s overrated. Warm is better.’

Tracey Thorn, Another Planet, 2019

Which is something I have lamented quite a lot recently. To quote Morrissey, shyness is nice but it can stop you doing all the things in life you’d like to. And so can cool. And actually, being cool is the opposite of cool. Genuinely (and if you can manage it, passionately) getting a rush about the things that make you feel good, and sharing that – the instinct to want others to feel it too – is quite an innocent, child-like response. Most people won’t ‘get it’ or ‘get you’. Put yourself in your wrong context and you’ll feel as reduced as a bag of bargain bucket supermarket flowers. You might feel stagnant even if you don’t quite smell yet.

I’m not one for memes but I do like the one ‘Show your vibe, find your tribe’. Despite vibe always sounding like it could only be uttered for a short window of time – the weekend of some mythical prog-rock fest in 1973, for example – no other word quite sums up the often indefinable and intuitive response we have among others, be it a gentle dawn chorus or a dusty pall of possibly radioactive material.

My point being that blogs, and the subtleties they allow, and the space to reflect, seem to be used by people who need to reconnect with their inner world and relation to the outer world – the sense of self – when most online forms of expression are immediate, proclaiming and projecting an ideal.

I’ve discovered there are lots of carers who blog, caring being a stage of life, if chosen, which involves coming up close to the suffering of others and ourselves. It has the potential to consume identity. In addition, at any stage in life comes a time when we realise things once felt more carefree, and we don’t know yet if that feeling will ever come back.

Then there’s the rite of passage when we move into the front line of mortality when parents, once bedrocks of stone – regardless of the quality of relationship – turn to sand, and nothing will stop the tide.

Or all these things and everything in life that can take away the light. I started my blog in 2012 just after my dad got sick and went into a home, which I found pretty hard-going. I stopped blogging later because life then became a conveyor belt of dealing with elderly care, its fallout and the impact on everyone affected.

In stressful times many of us read or watch escapist fiction because it’s pretty good to get lost in a space where possibility is infinite and identity is an ongoing thing. I told someone that watching four seasons of an epic TV series one summer was great de-stress therapy. It threw me into greater challenges than mine and explored – with some nuance – how people deal with genuine adversity.

‘But it’s not real!!!’ they exclaimed.

Momentarily I was ready to be reduced, but instead announced – not without shades of Brian Sewell, minus the accent, ‘Of course not. But that is the purpose of all art, to help us make sense of life.’

Collecting the imagery, the books, the films – any of the portals to places that remind us that life is a pleasurable thing, either because they are familiar and suggest security, or, and where the real value lies, because they shine light on the selves that get lost or aren’t discovered yet in the fog of responsibility, makes a living resource.

When I wrote my ‘about’ page all those years ago I said:

‘Ambrosia’ is from the 1963 film of Keith Waterhouse’s book Billy Liar, an alternative land that Billy escapes to in his imagination, away from things that are small, narrow and dull. It’s anything that clears the fog in a sometimes mundane world…’

Now, I don’t think it’s the world that’s mundane. It’s the self that is mundane, forgetting what we need to thrive, and accepting what can feel like an inevitable way of dealing with whatever it is we all have to deal with in some way or other, wherever it is on the scale.

Yes, we can escape into ‘portals’ and the things we enjoy, but being around the people that ‘get’ whatever part of ourselves they connect to, is the happiest place to be.

Angela Barrett’s Joan of Arc

joan-of-arc-angela-barrett-3joan-of-arc-angela-barrett-1joan-of-arc-angela-barrett-2

Illustrations by Angela Barrett from a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc (text by Josephine Poole).

The following is from a profile of the illustrator published in The Guardian, 2006, by Joanna Carey. It’s just as you would hope…

“This strong feeling for the past extends to Barrett’s own surroundings – entering her mansion flat, in a Dickensian part of London, is like stepping into one of her illustrations. She works at a huge desk beneath a mirror, surrounded by artworks and curios. Aside from a digital radio and a propelling pencil, her life seems untouched by modern technology – certainly there’s no computer. And if she needs a light box, she simply pushes aside the tasseled drapes and tapes her rough drawings to the window in order to trace images on to watercolour paper.”

And this is fascinating:

“When I draw figures, I like to distort them a little – it heightens the emotion. I draw them again and again until they are just out of proportion.” She takes the same liberties with perspective, and her illustrations frequently have an illusory sense of theatre, with vistas opening up unexpectedly as the page turns. “When I’m travelling I love those fleeting glimpses you get between buildings, or through trees – it’s lucky I don’t drive; I’d always be turning for a second look … I love the way you are just left with a memory – it’s the lure of the unattainable.”

Before the Dawn: Cathy meets St Joan in a Sky of Honey

btd1

Andy Gill, music critic of The Independent on Kate Bush’s live recording of Before the Dawn:

“It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of dark and light which leaves one alternately scared and soothed by the knowledge that whatever comes to pass, it will pass by again, and soon.”

Suffice to say Before the Dawn on record does not disappointment: it’s a rare moment of life affirmation on many levels.

For the record, it’s as visceral and beautiful as the live event, and proves that the theatre dressing was just that: the music was all.

That’s especially the case with the Sky of Honey suite from Aerial, which has such fire here that it edges The Ninth Wave from pole position. The original elements of birdsong, sun and moon that cradle the concept are amplified, embellishing Molly Bloom’s sensual world, building to conclusion with the warrior-like energy of a Saint Joan from the opening set.

In the midst, the song given to Kate’s son, ‘Tawny Moon’, might seem a flashback to her teenage self. There are hints there in the vocal, beneath the assured delivery that owes more to musical theatre, of a legacy in the intonation. And there’s something poignant in the lustful bravado of the song’s character, wooing the lunar goddess, the muse, as if she’s some shy young actress on an Edwardian stage (a scenario that sounds sent ghost-like from Cathy’s Lionheart years) in the hands of someone so young, with the great weight of his own creativity to shape and form in the shadow of a similar titan.

Despite the desire for lost domains, to live or relive on film, the recording is more valuable: it’s a portal to our own sense memory.

The Ninth Wave might have benefited from visuals: the written dialogue, both sketch and pilot, are lame or awkward, and yet, when Kate makes exceptions like this they only prove the rule, like letting Elton John batter the subtlety out of ‘Snowed in at Wheeler Street’ on 50 Words. It’s humanity.

We Used to Have Parties etc

Something beautifully, achingly melancholic for anyone feeling not particularly attractively melancholic in these times. Trite play with song titles obviously completely crap, but that’s not the reason. It’s just a lovely, lovely song from The Dreaming Spires, whose brothers Robin and Joe Bennett also play live with Saint Etienne and Sarah Cracknell from time to time, and who Andrew Marr put on his show last year when they released Searching for the Supertruth (which features the splendid Dusty in Memphis among others).