And suddenly nothing is the same, and we all wish for a time when it was. I can't say my life has changed enormously, in that I didn't congregate in crowds, we didn't meet up with people a lot, we're both pretty much home bugs, but there's a cloud of fear over the country - the world - already and it's only going to increase. It seems wrong to say anything unfeelingly cheerful. It seems wrong to say anything unnecessarily miserable. Everything seems wrong.
I've made a list of things that Now would be a good time to get done - the mountain range of ironing, the chaotic tangle of the garden, a billion plates ready for when I can get to a press and print again - but knowing I should, I could, isn't the same as having any kind of drive to do them. I did start cutting back the dogwood (which, I can't help noticing, has turned into quite a sturdy tree since the last time I looked at it), and on the arty front I've done a little gentle collage from old prints towards a concertina book (on the theme of lockdown - what else?) but mostly I'm rereading favourite books. A comfortable slippers approach to life. Maybe it's not such a bad idea, for now.
BABE - the Bristol Artists Book Event, and a tag bound to gather a few unbookish follows - only comes round once every two years and is highly popular. Once the word goes out for booking, you either get on with it straight away or run the risk that within a couple of hours (max) every last table has been snaffled. Two years ago I just managed to book the very last one, so I didn't hang around this time. It only seems to become more sought-after as an event to exhibit at.
It takes place at Arnolfini, on the waterfront - a fantastic spot, especially if the weather plays nice - over two floors, plus talks and presentations on the top floor, and seems to be able to guarantee a steady stream of visitors over both days, even when the sunday is Mothering Sunday. Being on my own, I didn't get an opportunity to see much of the rest of the first floor, nor any of the ground floor, but as I managed to buy a couple of beautiful books within a few tables of mine, that's probably (sadly) all for the best. Met a few instagram connections, sat behind their own tables or standing in front of mine, so that was rather nice. Missed some stands I meant to visit that were well within reach, so absolutely no excuse. Enjoyed - as does just about everyone! - the coffee and cake trolley that visits the exhibitors twice a day (the cakes are very very good). Talked about books and folds, life and its various twists good and bad, printmaking and words, to many people till my lips hurt (not sure what that's about). I'd forgotten how much I enjoy these events - I should maybe try for a few more.
When I was at school, I wanted to be an author. I was going to be an author, and that the school careers teacher named it in a presentation (and without any notion of crushing dreams, I'm sure) as one of the only two careers he would advise pupils not to follow - I've completely forgotten the other one - was undeniably depressing, but not enough to put me off my Grand Plan. Even now I know there are little collections of yellowed paper tucked away, carrying the first few pages of early endeavours. They are, without exception, dreadful, and should all be binned, but to discard them would be to throw away the dream. I might have no expectation of settling down to write a book-sized work of fiction, but deep inside the desire remains.
Gradually the whole idea stepped back and further back into the shadows while life got on with happening. I constantly scribbled and doodled, but that was because it's how I see the world, through words and images. At a certain point printmaking became a thing, which answered a need in me I barely knew was there, and with book arts came an outlet for stories - again, I don't think I even realised that the need to create with words was still alive and kicking.
It's built much smaller these days, the writing thing. While - I admit it - a bigger story lives in the background, that one's rather like a comfort blanket. It's in my head more than on paper (yes, still paper) and it pleases me to toy with scenes and storylines and characters as a background activity, without in any way committing or ever intending to commit to more than that. Many of the stories that I play with for handmade books, on the other hand, are often so brief that 'story' is far too grand a word. Except that, increasingly, I see the world as built more of stories than of anything else. It's not an original idea by any means, and I accept that what I see as a story another person would call a slice of life. Just a thing. Nevertheless, I'm coming to realise that, one way or another, for me it's all about stories - some true to life, some not at all, most somewhere in between. The stories we tell others, the ones that make us look better or worse, weaker or stronger, even the ones that tell it the way we think we really are; the endless stories we tell ourselves to justify, deny, understand, reject; the stories we tell the world - not all stories are told with words, after all. Every stone circle, hedged field, garden, house, city, road - don't they all change the story of what the land is? Every law made, every war entered upon, do they not impose a new story on a people or a country? In return life imposes its own stories - brother, mother, unfortunate victim, lucky survivor. All stories. A simplistic way to look at things, perhaps, but not untrue.
Stories are not necessarily either good or bad in themselves, but I do find they are a way to cope with a world that can be chaotic, random, scary and the rest. If I can work on one small idea and bludgeon it into having some kind of shape and meaning for me, it might help to tidy away a thought that otherwise extends tendrils all over the place and causes my mind to resemble anything from candyfloss to christmas pudding. That already makes it worthwhile, in however small a way.
Prints tell stories to me too, though thus far very simple and almost accidental ones, but in books I can tentatively work through something more purposefully. Whether anyone else would notice is, to me, neither here nor there - some things are just personal. For now I'll keep on shaping them until I find better ways to move through the world.
It's not my baby any more, and initially I had no intention of exhibiting (as it would require at least a modicum of making), but Claire gently pushed me to share a table and, like a foldy thing (a deckchair, perhaps?), I folded and said yes. As the Holden Gallery was no longer available for the fair, it took itself under the shade of the Design Manchester umbrella, and last weekend we ended up in the Old Fire Station on London Road along with Manchester Print Fair and a handful of other workshops, food and drink suppliers etc.
The venue was quite something - ornate pillars and tiled walls (including some ?art nouveau tiles), all painted a very improbable blue but with enough peeling areas to hint at what's underneath, and a floor of various paving arrangements presumably indicating the usage of the areas. Chilly, too - one of those places where you venture outside to get warm - and there was always the possibility that one of the pigeons that flew in from time to time might decorate the artists' books at our end and/or (they are notoriously generous in some regards) the prints at the other end. As far as I'm aware it didn't happen - surely we'd have heard the cries of anguish. A triangular courtyard was host to the food and drink elements, which led to more anxiety at times as the occasional drinker brought in his flexible beer glass and gently bounced along to the music. Again, I don't think there were any actual disasters.
The whole building has been sold, and I heard various stories as to what it's going to be, but I'm happy enough to wait and see. It would be nice to think that the book fair et al might get another chance to be there next year, though thicker socks might be in order.
To have an artists' book fair and an exhibition preview (with much attendant prep) in the space of six days is not ideal, but hey, if that's the way the cards fall, what are you going to do? In the event, both went well and were great fun, so maybe it is the way to do it. Still a little stiff from the unaccustomed exercise of painting walls, though.
A part of my brain, the part that wasn't zoned out, wondered if I was deliberately sabotaging myself. And if so, why? The sluggish part said 'shh, watching something'. Eventually I did get going on a project, but it was genuinely too late and I didn't make it to the end - this is something that has been worrying me for years, that one day I just wouldn't beat the deadline. Well now it's happened, and I'm not too impressed at myself, though I had enough stock so it wasn't the end of the world. I think I knew that, and I ask again - did I sabotage myself? Probably unanswerable, so I'll, um, put off thinking about it till it's almost too late for something or other. Meanwhile, I did produce a lot of useful prep towards the book, and next time it'll be fine. I expect.
I reached the fair last Saturday morning (dramatically snowy over the Pennines) in a much better state of mind and (of course) enjoyed myself as much as usual. I had a very erratic look round the rest of the fair, having long chats with some folks and failing to see some tables except to know I should have paid more attention, but it's hard to be behind a table as well as see everything else. For me at least. I think it's a part of the fading ability to multitask from which I've been suffering in recent years. I popped into the room holding vast numbers of David Barton's books on show (the picture below left was only a fraction of them!) and into the one holding Craig Atherton's Cafe Royal books (very smart, below right), and was very impressed with a gigantic book on display - the Bathymetric Atlas of the English Lake District. This enormous and pristine tome - it takes two be-gloved people to turn the pages, at set times during the week - shows the basins of the lakes, intricately cut away from vast, glued, double sheets of paper, like a negative version of building up mountains contour by contour. I only caught a section of the page-turning ceremony, but I think someone said that the depths of Lake Windermere appeared (or, I suppose, disappeared) first. It was surprisingly compelling to watch.
The preview for our Group Thirteen exhibition was on the Thursday evening, and there was a lot to do for it which (of course) I hadn't been able to concentrate on before the book fair. So, having found a room to myself within the allocated space at Hot Bed Press, I painted the walls in an agonised shade of blue - agonised in that it took me much agonising to reach a decision on exactly which shade. Really? For a fortnight's exhibition? Yes, but it was important to me. I managed the blue all in one day, and woke up in the middle of the night deciding that it was far too bright, but luckily by morning I'd decided that it wasn't (and that if it was, I'd just have to live with it). That, white paint on other bits and all the actual hanging left me unbelievably achy - unfitness doesn't mean you can't do these things, just that you suffer for them after. Still, probably good for me, and it was worth it - I might not have been ready till 20 minutes before opening, but I got there and I was happy with the results.
The exhibition is in an enormous space, giving us each the opportunity to organise our chosen patch exactly as we like, and resulting in what is really a number of mini-galleries. Work covers the inevitable trees, landscape, floral, birds, but also abstract, flotsam, ceramics, skulls, taxidermy, upholstery and insects. And more. I'm biased, of course, but I'd say definitely worth a visit (last day 23rd March, not open Sundays). In an effort to tempt would-be visitors, here's a selection of what's on show.
So way back when, I signed up for a weekend of Japanese bookbinding and box making with Lucy May Schofield at Hot Bed Press, and this last weekend it arrived. Lucy was fresh from Japan, where she currently lives, and back in Britain for a series of workshops, residencies, talks and the like - we were the first lucky few to benefit from her visit (and her green tea biscuits).
We had a fantastic time, making four little books with Japanese stab stitch bindings - I've tried this before, with Elizabeth Willow, and enjoyed it immensely; the bindings look great and are relatively simple to create. This time we added fiddly but (and I might have been alone in thinking this, they were something of a faff to deal with) ultimately very satisfying corners to the books, and the covers had neatly folded tiny TINY edges (my patience didn't stretch that far! I cheated and stuck most of mine - it was either that or scream, tear everything up and throw the pieces into the air).
But the wraparound box was the thing of true beauty, and I was in love from the moment Lucy handed around an example on the Saturday morning. In fact overall it wasn't dreadfully complicated either, and I would be happy to make another one. Soon, before it becomes more complex in my memory. Much of it is about being reasonably precise (so I should probably get past the occasional problem I have where I think I'm joining up two points to finish off a square or a rectangle, yet somehow I end up with something more akin to a potting shed) and - when I'm in the zone - that's not really a problem. Lucy had brought us a selection of japanese papers for the covers, and pieces of kimono fabric for the boxes - all very vibrant, and a picture of everyone's work at the end would have been a riot of colour, but you'll just have to make do with mine.
Suddenly suddenly suddenly there seem to be many things needing me to get down to producing work NOW! Not one of them has turned up suddenly, of course, but I find it enticingly easy to ignore deadlines until I'm just about to trip over them and fall flat on my face. It really is no good at all, making as it does for regular bouts of sheer panic, but thus far I seem to be incapable of changing my habits.
To be fair to me - and I do always like to be fair to me - two of those deadlines are in July, which is hardly tomorrow, and although in work production terms July feels far too soon, I suppose if I panic now I might even be ready by then.
Before that, though, comes the excitement of BABE, the Bristol Artists Book Event. The Arnolfini is in a lovely spot, right on the harbourside, and the fair is always stuffed full with brilliant people and wonderful work. I'm not without work to adorn a table (phew) but the recent Leeds fair means I could do with some substantial topping up, and already the clock is ticking. If anyone is in the area in April, do come along and say hello.
Well, it was good! I'm never ready (perhaps my better half is right, and I do get something out of the last minute panic and excitement, but I have to say that it doesn't feel that way to me!) and this fair fitted that pattern perfectly. It left me, at the beginning of day one, suspended between wanting the fair to go well (of course) and not wanting too much to sell because it was ALL out there on the table. There were no backup supplies, and I like to follow the approach that more is more. Not to a ridiculous level, but if there were too many spaces, I'd know that was because there was nothing else to fill them with and I'd expect other people to know too. I finished some books during saturday and during the evening (you see? This is what it's always like) because it seemed a waste of all that too-late flurry of activity the week before if I then didn't take them to the fair at all.
And a little bit of everything sold, which was rather nice, and didn't highlight too much that, quite often, that little bit of everything was actually all of everything, right there and then. I decided not to rush through the turkish map fold 'books' (they're not books yet) and make shedloads of annoying and irreversible errors - I like to think they'll be ready for BABE in April.
I saw oystercatchers twice, last weekend - haven't seen any in years, and then I catch a couple flying over Salford - that certainly surprised me - and another pair in a field in the Pentlands. They made nicely designed bookends to a weekend in Edinburgh. We go up most years to watch Scotland play rugby. I almost said to watch them lose, but that wouldn't be fair and besides isn't wholly the point - we enjoy the trip to Murrayfield anyway, though a win is better still.
We wandered round central Edinburgh on the Saturday morning, and included Rose Street (I don't usually bother - I'm sure I remember it as mostly pubs, and if you're not going to a pub then there doesn't seem much point). Glad we did - it was filled with poetry! Planters all the way along, with poems by the likes of Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith around each one.
And towards the castle end a series of panels of a George Mackay Brown poem. All rather lovely.
Since when I should have been hard at work preparing for the Leeds artists book fair this coming weekend. Well, I have been, but with an inevitability from which by now I really should have gleaned something, the time was nowhere near as big as the workload, so I'm suffering a certain level of panic. Shouldn't be spending time writing this, really. Back to work.
I make prints and book arts, though nowhere near as often as I'd like - no good reason, just an inability to get on with things. I occasionally go on about landscape (with which I am mildly obsessed) and various of its elements, and I like to pass comment on exhibitions I visit.