Friday, 27 August 2010

Book Beauty

For a while C and I ran a press together. It was called The Starwheel Press and it produced portfolios of etchings and poems, none of the poems by me, but rather by invited poets - five of them - together with etchings by five artists, of whom C and I were two. The editions were small - fifty-five copies - and were sold by subscription. There were unpublished signed poems by people like Craig Raine, Anne Stephenson, Peter Porter, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Wendy Cope, etc. We sold them at about £15 per portfolio of five: they go for about £200 now (though not from us). There were other one-off publications of which more later, heaven knows when. The portfolios would have been a good investment at the time

The technique required an etching press (the eponymous Edwardian starwheel press), a monotype press (a heavy Golding Jobber, powered by a 1hp motor) a supply of monotype trays, acid baths, and plates of zinc or copper. The etching took place in the cellar, the letterpress in the outhouse. What we sold we ploughed back into the next production, of which there were one a year. We paid ourselves nothing. It was a whole summer's work each time.

It was simple and limited. We weren't perfectionists and we didn't invent anything. Meanwhile, out in the world extraordinary books were being produced. Books like this:

from Bluebeard's Castle

from Anansi Company

Log Book - Termite Grid

These are some of the products of Ronald King's Circle Press. But there are books involving mirrors, books with blind embossing (amongst them a gorgeous one about babies by Willow Legge, around a poem by Penelope Shuttle), books six foot high, and books in the form of cases, and books that spill or project out and books with removable pieces. And also books produced at Circle Press by people who passed through as assistants and fellow workers.

This is not an advertisement but an act of homage, primarily to Ron and all that he has generated. The point is not that these books are pretty or decorative, more that that they are savagely playful and are an earnest of what book-as-object can be. Because there are wilder shores still than these: hairy books, books that wear clothes, books in shoes, books in bits that assemble and reassemble. Books as sculpture, books as concepts.

But there is, originally, the book, that is usually a vehicle for text, or text and picture, or just picture; the essentially functional book where you turn the pages almost unaware of the book as substance, because it is the words or images that perform for you.

Even so, even among the cheap paperbacks, even among the ephemera, there are books that feel and look better than others. 'Books do furnish a room' as Anthony Powell has it somewhere. I know what he means as most of our walls carry wall-furniture of just that sort. 'Cheap insulation,' as someone else once said.

Cheap and solemn, or cheap and cheerful. Most of our books are of that second-hand company. But it's good to think of proud, joyful and ingenious books strutting around like peacocks, or screaming like children, or singing through wood, each with its own form of sense.


Poet in Residence said...

Like you I think many books are beautiful, often a joy to hold as well as behold. I'm so glad I bought my copy of 'The Burning of the Books' from your publisher Bloodaxe a couple of years ago. I think I've saved myself 2661.05p

George S said...

I think it works like this, Gwilym. If I visit you and you buy me a meal, the worth of that meal will have increased a dozenfold in twenty years. So you see what a bargain you get by buying me a meal? How could anyone say no to a deal like that?!

Poet in Residence said...

You're right of course. The Bratwursts are on me!

I can well remember going to the corner chippie for three penny'orth. It was in the days before french fries were invented, banned and re-invented.
Nowadays I'd have to pay, what is it (a pound perhaps?) and I wouldn't even know what I was getting; patriot fries, french fries, pommes frites, chips, wedges...