Motifs in mind: daydreaming and escapist inspiration

For anyone still moved by other times & placesa ramble on their role in the everyday

Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve tried to explore something which would draw together all the eclectic strands of those things which capture my imagination. They extend into my domestic life: each time I made a house into a home, it was not a look I was seeking to achieve (as in our century’s ‘look’ that competes and seeks approval) but an atmosphere, something I could be transported by. It’s never been the time I am living in, and ideally I’d be able to hop between 1967, 1637, 1937, with maybe the odd bit of 1814, 897 and so on. Yes indeed, a carriage crash of design on the toll road.  

I know this sounds a bit grand, but my mind is a library of such atmospheres – scenes in books or films are not recalled in words but are felt. (Sure, all this will sound like something from Pseud’s Corner.) Sometimes the particular quality of the light or turn of the weather will send me to some glowering seventeenth century landscape, cider apples in the air, beeswax wafting through an oak door, the crackle of wood on the hearth.

Heat from a baked pavement might invoke a TV memory of a US city I’ve never been – distilled polaroid gold, a coffee-diesel bath of warm air, an oscillating bassline catching sky-high sun in the glitter pulse of cars on distant freeway, going where?

Just a glazing of frost and a finch squeaking on a bit of yew and I’m indoors with Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, a tang of woodsmoke, butter sliding off a muffin, amber light on old stone. I’m going to call these motifs – I’m sure there’s an official term, but that will do for a short ramble.

In a way it’s like a dog surveying a scene, contemplating the unremarkable, then wagging its tail for no perceptible reason. So why try to analyse the pleasure, which like most academic thought ultimately leads to a definition that dulls the magic?

I’ll quote this scene from the TV series The Durrells where the prosaic Leslie, who likes shooting animals, is talking with his sister Margo and articulates his role as a matter-of-fact foil for his family:

Margo: “Why are you so worried about the play?”

Leslie: “You’re all so artistic. I see… ‘a tree’, you lot see…”

Margo: “Broccoli. Trees look like upside down broccoli.”

…which is a neat puncturing of the concept of the artistic soul, but what if Margo had said, “I can hear hounds, there’s a figure through the acorns – I can hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat of fear…” where would it have come from? The Ladybird Book of Charles II?

Miss Bianca, Margery Sharp, illustration Garth Williams

A few years back I thought my imagination grew from children’s literature, but I think I have read more of it as an adult. At 10 years old I was trying to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles for example (before it got taken away). Maybe I felt all grown up after I’d finished Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books and went straight for the dour, tragic Victorians.

The worlds presented in a lot of young adult novels are often chaotic and unformed (thinking, for example, of Alan Garner or Penelope Farmer). But they also invite things to happen, quests for belonging and reinvention, or simply, change – characters running to escape the banal and mundane, the once weird and now weirder world of grown-ups where some odd reason to judge, to smirk, deny or destroy is just beneath the skin.

Is there an audience of grown-ups out there still hungry for Ambrosia like Billy Liar, disenfranchised and disappointed, still hoping to find something more through the back of the wardrobe? Should we be embarrassed?

Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar, 1963, struck by ill-timed motif visitation

There are pleasurable motifs we carry with us and I think they’re essential to our sense of wellbeing, cinematic flashes of images and experiences internalised from reality or art. They can be used, if we want, to ‘create’ with our own filters applied.

And of course, there are unpleasurable motifs – things that stifle, doubt and procrastinate, and darker places.

From Mary Shelley to Richard Jefferies, from the cult series Survivors of the 1970s to 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale right up to The Walking Dead (oh yes, Fear the… as well) I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions.

But visiting dystopian futures on screen or in novel has lost that playfully gothic frisson of unsettlement. Science fiction is an outdated term because stock fantasies are a reality, weaving their way into our lives like mutating tendrils from John Wyndham’s pen. We peer into our near future with Black Mirror or Years and Years. But where once it was reassuring to return from these nightmares, we’re now putting the kettle on with predictability now dearly-departed and anything seems possible.  

‘Look ahead of winter, let the breath of summer into you’ (Lyric, Julianne Regan)

Did we choose our motifs at an impressionable age? Do we know where we found our fascinations? Are we more than the product of those who shared their imaginary worlds, those authors and screenwriters who showed us Herne the Hunter or that strange things happen when the wolves are running? I’d like to think we came into the world predisposed to the things that move us.  

Is this ‘childish imagination’ a virtual reality overlay? Are we summoning these atmospheres from our personal motifs to challenge us (overcome our fears, the monsters under the bed) or enhance our reality, whether we want it simplified or decorated, or to realise ourselves and our possibilities, or just to feel some magic among the mundanity?

Somewhere I have the germ of an idea that this might be about noticing and recognising. In reading or watching a story we absorb what are, after all, other people’s experiences. If they strike a chord, as motifs they become part of our own consciousness.

This is part of the act of reading fiction, to download the working of another’s mind, though in film an actor can do the same with barely the flex of a facial muscle or the shift of an eyelash. In this shared consciousness, there are connections from our own experiences (those ‘oh, you feel like that too’ moments). To continue a theme, we might be Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven (the one who can “perceive the past, present and future through visions and time travel with ease”).

I’m not for a moment suggesting there is anything supernatural here, just using the ‘visionary’ trope to explore how a response to external ‘art’ becomes an internal experience which is ‘not real’ – as in not first-hand experience – but it becomes part of us, hidden until we notice and recognise it again, like the lamp-post from Narnia outside a branch of Aldi.

These motifs serve to remind us that things have been and will be, which is affirming, whether from light or dark. And so we end of up with a form of faith, a belief in the power of the imagination.

It would be great to hear if others enjoy a bit of time travel in the course of the everyday, or get transported in unlikely places when a motif is triggered…

Photographs copyright WhistlesintheWind

Printers’ specimen book 1958, Pt.2

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

Ru van Rossem

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.

Judith Bledsoe
John O’Connor
Thomas Hennell

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

Holiday haul

Summer holiday: all those unnecessary possessions spilling from boxes and cupboards and wardrobes and drawers reduced to camping stuff and a couple of bags of clothes. And nothing is missed, we’re just here in the present. There’s a lesson there I’ve patently failed to notice, because back home I’m shuffling a new hoard around and wishing I could just ingest everything like something from the movie eXistenZ

Mortimer

Beginning with a superb Penguin from 1964: the cover is a still of Anne Bancroft from the film version which I saw a few months ago. A fascinating film, beautifully acted and shot, 50 years old and still relevant. (The write-up on the DVD has the slightly fatuous line ‘Jo Armitage has a breakdown in Harrods and her life begins to crumble’.)

McCullers

Just brilliant typography – and another film from the 1960s I saw recently. Carson McCullers has such evocative titles for her novels (like Tennessee Williams, and some might find it a little melodramatic) but a phrase like this always draws me to a book, which is partly something to do with how they look in print and how designers can work such magic with them. I haven’t read Carson McCullers before but I know I’ll love this. I had to wrestle and choose between this and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in the same edition. I wish I’d just got both but was physically removed from the bookshop once it was clear I was about to spend the rest of the holiday budget and probably throw the camping gear out of the car to make room for these essentials.

Huxley and Bowen

More 1960s paperbacks. To think there was a time when most books looked like this.

Bowen and Lehmann

Another evocative title that I’ve been looking for: The Weather in the Streets. I’ll just add this poster from the Transport Museum here, because it comes to mind every time I pick up the book…

0924-49

Notable to see Howard Spring recommending this, a bestselling and respected author that never made it to the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the ghostly short stories from Elizabeth Bowen, particularly after The Demon Lover.

Garfield

And lastly, some Leon Garfield. The cover of The Drummer Boy is by Antony Maitland. I was partly drawn to this by a walk to Easby Abbey in Yorkshire, passing a memorial to a drummer lost in the secret passage from Richmond to the abbey in the eighteenth century.

Drummer's stone

Christmas 1952

A small, understated gem of cover art from 1952. A diamond snowflake…

snowflake

Now she was round and pure as the morning light… able to catch and give back every colour in the world about her… thereafter she mirrored the pale pink of the cherry blossom, then the tint of orange filched from the breast of a robin as he flew by, and the light blue of a spring sky. The grey of a rock, the black of a crow’s glossy wing, the dapple of a young calf, all were hers.

October 1941: Cries of London

This is almost a film from the forties in book form – I’m thinking of A Canterbury Tale in the sense that it echoes the opening titles. You can hear the peal of bells and the fonts are as crisp as if lit by the silver screen, ancient art and (for the time) modern technology in perfect union.

This isn’t a faux-gothic recreation of Merrie England: the cover is a perfect example of stylised 1930s design, as beautiful a logo as you’d find anywhere – I imagine it happily at home on Broadcasting House. The fabric cover is rich hopsack, a homespun warmth that is cool in its simplicity, breaking from the leather and gilt tradition as beautifully as the Johnathan Cape Florin pocket books of the early thirties.

The bluntness of Eric Gill’s font puts the William Morris-ish dropped capital in the spotlight…

…and there is nothing muted about the colour, which updates as brightly as the splashes of orange on thirties ceramics.

Cries and Criers of Old London was published in October 1941, not long after the city had been blitzed. It might be affirming the familiar to a shell-shocked city, just as A Canterbury Tale would speak to the nation, but there is a darker side. The cuts are bold and roughly medieval, with The Scream or the Black Death coming to mind now and again.

It’s a poignant book: while the bells peal joyously in A Canterbury Tale and Cries and Criers, the folk in the streets knew they would only be ringing to warn them of terror.