Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Jonathan Newdick

8th December 2009

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

The first reaction to an invitation to provide some personal reflections on the past year is how quickly that year has gone. There is no doubt that you travel through the years more quickly when you have a bus pass. But somewhere within the confusion of passing months there are memories: I have missed people and I have made some new friends, I have had two successful exhibitions and produced one well-received book (though as usual the accountant will remain unimpressed). My son has not announced his engagement, a phrase far too regal, but he is getting married. I have travelled fewer miles in the past year than in any since 1999, indeed, I haven’t been out of the country. It has been a local year, a year of knowing the fields and streams around me, a year of intimacy with grass and streams and with the woods.
In January there was a walk, significant, though short, in the flooded water-meadows at Ladymead by the river Rother in West Sussex and later in the year I found a book in a second hand bookshop which quickly became a favourite. These two disparate events are as memorable as any from a year in which I tried always to avoid news broadcasts. They are both taken from my diary. Oh, and I learned a new word.

Ladymead, January 2009
It had rained most of the previous day and all of the night and the rain had been brought on great gales of wind from the west.
But the morning is still and all the grass is shining. Walking along the lane to Perryfields the leaves of celandines like copper-green coins thrown in the grass. No flowers yet, no golden coins. Beyond the hedge the water is shining on the fields and there is one gull wheeling and one wheeling gull’s reflection. On a grassy slope the soft crust of earth has burst like a wound but the blood of the wounded earth is a spring of clear water. It beats erratically down towards the river and all the grasses in its path lie with it, so fresh and green, like something edible, or seaweed in the sunshine of a July morning.
I stand on the iron footbridge and watch the brown water swirling and gurgling around the old stones and the young alders. Their purple catkins quivering, their supple branches oscillating, waving, in the unusual flow. A flock of six or eight wigeon flies from left to right over the glassy field, beyond them a broken and black tangle of willows and then, far away, a short shower of rain. But here the sun still shines. Upstream and towards Ladymead the river is higher than the wet fields that border it – a legacy from the old days of water meadows, sluices and flood-plain management – and the river water is spilling over the grassy banks in so many shining rivulets to cover the fields, as silent and gentle as snow. This new lagoon stretches far away to the distant trees, its slow progress from right to left emphasised by the flood debris on its surface. Its shallowness is deceptive. Today’s light suggests a great depth and you expect to see George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders drifting in from the west. Perhaps Mark Twain is among the alders, taking notes.

birds etching

It is still, windless and seemingly timeless. Yet I know that tomorrow or the next day the grasses and sedges will re-appear and what had seemed like a wide lagoon or a great river will be only a memory and the black cormorant, as ancient as archaeopteryx, who flies, confused, above me now, will find fish once more.
I return slowly to the cottage. Along the hedge where, not long ago, Fulvia had picked her autumn sloes. A Venetian woman, cast somewhere between Candleford and Lark Rise. The bare and perfect surface of the soil of the salad field polished and shining in the mid-day light. So unnatural seems this form of tilling the soil but is it any more so than the wooden plough that turned the stony earth in Mesopotamia between those two great rivers all those centuries ago?

Some thoughts on a favourite book
The extended title says it all:
‘Abbeys, by M. R. James, LITT.D., F.S.A., F.B.A. Provost of Eton, with an additional chapter on “Monastic Life and Buildings” by A. Hamilton Thompson, M.A., D.LITT., F.S.A. Professor of Mediæval History in the University of Leeds. With One Hundred Illustrations by Photographic Reproduction, Fifty-six Drawings, Thirteen Plans, Seven Colour Plates and Map’. But this is not the academic study which that titular preamble suggests. No, it is a guide book and, moreover, a guide book published by The Great Western Railway (Felix J. C. Pole, General Manager, Paddington Station, London). The date, 1926, reflects a time when the railway companies were as interested in serving the public as satisfying the shareholders. Of course, the one benefited the other, but try telling that to the board of today’s so-called First Great Western.
The map, which slips into a pocket pasted on the inside of the back board, folds out to 17 x 22 inches. Printed in black and two colours, it shows the whole of the Great Western network from Portland Bill in the south to Manchester, and from Penzance in the west to London, with tiny line drawings of the abbeys described in Dr. James’ text in their approximate positions.
The book itself measures 10 x 7½ inches and the 154 pages give it a thickness of almost 1¼ inches. My copy has no dust jacket – probably there never was one, but the boards are strong and the rich red paper covering is hardly marked. The quarter bound spine is in black cloth. Towards the top of the front board is the one word ‘Abbeys’ embossed in gold fractur type. The off-white laid pages are each watermarked ‘Abbey Mills Greenfield’. while the colour plates on white matt art paper and the folded plans on smooth lightweight stock are all tipped-in.
Typographically the book is almost faultless. With so many illustrations there are few double page spreads showing only text. One such is pp. 100 -1. The Monotype Garamond, which was introduced in 1922 and is thus ‘modern’ in the context of this book, sits beautifully on these pages and the fore-edge margins being nearly twice the width of the back edges give the pages a harmonious shape and colour. Sadly, but inevitably, this is less noticeable on the visually busier pages. There are two small typographic flaws: firstly the ct and st ligatures are too distracting. Even in 1925 these were becoming anachronistic and the ancient subject matter is no justification for their use. It is a mistake to allow text to be influenced by subject matter. Secondly, there are occasional sub-headings set in upper and lower case italic which have been letterspaced. I think it was Frederick Goudy who said that a man who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep. Mr Goudy knew what he was talking about. On the other hand where small capitals are used they are letterspaced and are much the better for it.
This hotmetal Garamond is a real joy. To see how wonderfully alive it is when compared with its too perfect computer geerated successor look at the Penguin edition (Penguin Classics, 2005) of A Legacy by Sybille Bedford. The main text of this edition has been reproduced from an earlier hotmetal printing but it has a new introduction which is computer set. The main text is full of little faults – for instance the lower case ‘a’ is frequently a little above the line and there are occasional battered characters. It is these faults, however, that make the page interesting and, what is more important, less tiring to read than the perfect introduction. Of course these faults must remain ‘little’ or they would be counter-productive. The small scar on the handsome face is tantalising. Henry Tonks’ powerful watercolours of mutilated faces of the Great War are deeply unsettling.
The same sort of commentary can be applied to the ‘Illustrations by Photographic Reproduction’ as to the typography. We are used today to seeing high definition perfection in photographs and in photographic reproduction, yet in reality this is not the way we see at all. In reality, when we look at something, what we experience is a small area of sharp definition which is surrounded by a sort of vague suggestion of colour and shadow and light. Facing page 134 in Abbeys is a photograph of Kenilworth: the Priory gate house from the north. Like all the photographs here it is on the sepia side of black and white but without being actually sepia. It shows a romantic ruin, the surrounding foliage indistinct with the view through the arch being the area of definition. It is not that the foliage is out of focus because it isn’t. It is the softness, the plate camera, the large negative which together produce a sensation of ‘really being there’. It is low on detail and information but is much closer to our experience of what we actually see than is digital perfection.
The thirteen tipped-in ground plans are beautifully hand-drawn and are reproduced (by permission of The Builder) on smooth white paper which can’t be more than about 45 grams per square metre. They fold out to almost twice the page size, or more, and are a true delight. The hand-drawn line, even when drawn against a ruler, has so much more to say about stone and timber than the computer generated line ever can. As, of course, the latter is more appropriate to a working drawing for a steel and glass structure.
The seven colour plates, again tipped in and on a good white art paper, are less successful than the plans. The cyan captions don’t help. Mostly they depict incunabula and details from libraries but in 1926 four-colour commercial reproduction was really not that good and I would almost prefer them not to be there. However, the plate which faces page one gives them a reprieve. It shows a page from The Book of Leviticus and the Gospel of St. John, written at St. Mary’s Abbey, Buildwas in 1176. Presumably there was a scriptorium here. The design of this ancient book speaks to me of perfection. As with Matisse’s collage ‘The Snail’ in the Tate Gallery the guide lines (here ruled) remain, no attempt at erasure having been made. Its design would not have looked inappropriate in the pages of Nova in the 1970s or in Rolling Stone magazine. It is an example of how excellence, harmony and beauty of design can be achieved without designers, just as so many of the buildings described in Abbeys prove that beautiful architecture can (or could once) be made without architects. Buildwas, near Ironbridge, is, says Dr. James, ‘. . . one of the more picturesque of ruins . . . [and] had a very respectable library.’ I would love to see this book from 1176 – I wonder where it is now.
Most of the 56 line drawings are good but they are variable – the tithe barn on page 135 (unfortunately it is not made clear just which barn this is) is particularly poor – and without exception all the drawings would have benefited from being reduced in size by about thirty per cent. I suspect these are reproduced to the same size as the original pen and ink drawings.
One of the delights of Abbeys, however, is its eccentricity (remember, it is a guide book). The entry for Winchcombe tells us that it ‘. . . is within two miles of Hailes, but will be dealt with very briefly, for no vestige of the Abbey remains.’ At what station, I wonder, on the GWR, should passengers alight for a non-existent abbey?
Facing the short entry for Winchcombe is a photograph of Odda’s Chapel at Deerhurst. It serves as a useful example of why our heir to the throne should think carefully before using words like ‘carbuncle’ in an architectural context. Odda’s is a simple stone-built Saxon chapel, one arched door, one arched window, and against it and incorporating it was built a medieval farmhouse, timber framed, all black and white ornate curved braces and jetties so typical of this part of England. The two parts of the now one building could not be more different in character but together they make a joyous combination. HRH take note.

untitled image

My book has £3 pencilled on the front endpaper but I got it for £1.50 and probably that’s all it’s worth on the open market. Why? Because the print run for the first (1925) edition was 20,000 and a year later my second edition was of the same quantity. There are a lot of them about and so they’re not worth anything. Perhaps not, but because of their quantity they have a greater value, and that value is not sumptuary but is defined by the numbers of people who are, like me, able to use and find great joy in them. As Oscar Wilde knew, it is dangerous or foolish to confuse words such as ‘worth’ ‘value’ and ‘cost’.

And the new word?
Ecdysiast. Posh word for a stripper, or, as the OED will have it, a striptease performer. A word so onomatopoeically inappropriate as to be unforgettable. It derives, apparently, from ecdysis, a scientific word concerning the shedding of the skin of the snake but it’s new to me as I have only a limited experience of either exotic artistes and snakes.

Next year I will travel more than I have done this year. Among my chief hopes is that I shall find at least one railway terminus in either England, France, Germany or Italy where there is not a bunch of blokes in hi-vis jackets and hard hats doing something noisy.