I’ve posted a few H E Bates covers before, but just to say again, I’ve no idea why he isn’t more appreciated these days. My own feeling is that he was too prolific and easily able to turn his hand to many genres, and much of his work was eclipsed by the Darling Buds of May. That’s a great shame, because his best work is incredibly bittersweet and melancholy in a warm, Septemberish kind of way.
Perhaps the titles here fit more into the prolific, career writer category, though of course Fair Stood the Wind for France has been incredibly popular: his output during, or drawing on, World War Two fairly cornered the market, from reminiscences of a fighter pilot to celebrations of rural life that were as much a part of capturing a country’s essence as the Recording Britain artists’ project.
Again the artwork moves from the late fifties to the early seventies. The Poacher gets the inevitable lusty Panther paperback treatment. (There was certainly a slight frisson of erotica in the way his work was sometimes portrayed, as if it brushed up against Henry Miller, and as proof I remember my grandma allegedly complaining that one of his books ‘had smut in it’.)
The Fabulous Mrs V is a perfect early Seventies ode to Martini-style sophistication. Mrs V appears to be wearing tennis whites, but if you look closer it’s actually far less practical and indeed one of Margo Leadbetter’s party dresses, and she has as much connection to the racket as an artefact from an alien spaceship.
Yet more mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
In the 21st century, anyone designing text and graphics has an infinite palette of colours and effects to throw at a design, and we can see the results vomited on street signs and shop fronts in all our towns. They’re not street signage of course, but the simple, effective designs here are not just a product of diligent training and effort, but also the restraints placed by what was technically possible. And surely these are delivering just as much impact.
It’s quite sad and a sign of the times that concise graphic design like this – used for everyday items, like food packaging, signage, informative and promotional materials – as opposed to book covers, artwork for music and posters, for example – has been shepherded into a visual language for what was once called the ‘discerning consumer’, shorthand for aspiring, likely to be sold overpriced product packaged beautifully or a word now rarely seen, ‘tastefully’.
In amongst all the mid century modernity, the Pepys layout above demonstrates an ongoing love of gentle baroque decoration, coloured like fine china.
More mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
All these images are a reminder of how much has been lost in the age of digital printing: a traditional printer was a true craftsman, custodian of skills passed through generations and now lost forever. Of course letterpress lives on as a niche artisan craft, but this kind of beauty was once an everyday item, as throwaway as a paper bag. The marriage of paper and colour is incredible, the tones so pure and vivid.
Mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
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.
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.
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.
Why we blog – escape portal, therapy or land of our people?
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.
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.”