Saturday, 12 December 2009

Poor Man's Bible

Following last month's gig, The Golden Hunger, at the Holywell Music Rooms in Oxford, I will be reading with the same line-up again in January. This time the venue will be Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire, for an invitation-only filmed performance. This immense and beautiful building will become an echo chamber for the eerie vocals of Macgillivray and Gwalia's bitter ballads, Iain Sinclair's geographical musings and Iain Bole's poetic, political commentaries.

The Abbey has a particularly strong tradition of imagery, and the pigment of 14th century angels still clings to the plaster. An enormous stone Tree of Jesse climbs the chancel and shelters the brilliantly coloured glass in the windows.

The Iron Age fort on Wittenham Clumps nearby dominates a landscape settled since remote antiquity. Here in 635AD the missionary Bishop Birinus, sent from Rome by Pope Honorius I, preached to Cynegils, King of Wessex. Cynegils must have been convinced by his oratory, for he was baptised, with Oswald King of Northumbria standing godfather. Some years later the church was founded in a valley of willows and misty water meadows as a shrine for Birinus' remains. It will be an honour to read in such an ancient setting.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Gangland Caff

Black plastic sign boards were once a common sight across London, and last summer I featured a decrepit specimen advertising electrical wares by the seaside. Perhaps it had retired from a life of crime in the metropolis.

In typographic terms, these signs are inherently sinister. The design draws on the white-on-black aesthetics of the chalkboard, but with none of the latter's grace. It combines a brutal typeface with a technology that, while initially promising freedom of choice, in fact constrains any graphic invention. Tiny holes in the surface of the board clamp onto plastic letter-shafts, insisting on perfect rectilinear presentation, while no other design elements need be followed. The board is the epitome of the upright and the ugly, as self-righteous and unimaginative as the Cockney cafe proprietor.

Sign boards are a quirk of display technology, an evolutionary anomaly like the vicious star-nosed mole of the Pacific North West, a creature neither of the land nor of the sea, with its alien and disturbing snout. These strange inventions have preserved their form unchanged while new and flashier ways of marketing – LED strips, florescent stars, digital displays – passed them by.

Like its more majestic relative, the cinema hoarding, the sign board has always suffered from a paucity of alphabetic material. The board’s owner must endure the fact that, even from the outset, there are never enough letters provided. And so words are misspelt to begin with, dollars used to represent pounds, letters to represent numbers – and vice versa. Then comes the inevitable decline in standards, first a spattering of chip fat, and then growing chaos as letters go missing in action, sucked up the hoover along with baked beans, beard trimmings or dead mice; falling from the board and down the back of a leatherette sofa as the plastic pegs bend and break.

In this deadpan version, Gangland Caff, the artist Andrew Lee encapsulates the poignant role of the sign board as both a welcome and a warning. Lee's 'Slap-Up Menu' offers a selection of unpalatable snacks that combine Cockney rhyming slang with the great greasy spoon tradition. Make mine a knuckle sandwich and a ginger beer.

Gangland Caff / menu board / 46x62cms / 2007

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Shape of Time

Time appears to pass more quickly as we become older. Talking about this poignant phenomenon with designer Anastasija Tarana, I discovered that she had explored time's fickleness in book form. Tarana thinks the human obsession with measuring time is somewhat incongruous, a fool-hardy attempt to impose definite rules on an abstract force. Why should a minute be a minute? Our instinctive feelings - biological clocks - often bely this measured parcelling out of lives in hours and years.

Tarana's ideas were given scientific backing via the 'Logtime' principle - a logarithmic time perception scale developed by James Main Kenney in the 1990s to express why units of time seem shorter the older we become. Logtime theory is based on the law by which the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 experiences a year as one-tenth of their life, and a person of 50 sees a year as one-fiftieth of their life. Elderly people may seem very slow to the young, but they are walking into the storm of sped-up time.

Tarana interviewed individuals of different ages, asking them to describe their impression of time and encouraging them to draw a coloured geometrical symbol to reflect their views. Particular age groups responded with uncannily similar symbols - circles from the children, triangles from the middle-aged. Tarana published these responses but also sought a design by which "the book form could be a container of this complicated data on its own."

The book that resulted from her research represents three different perceptions of a year at the same time. At 400 pages long, with each page standing for a day, it incorporates and extends the traditional 365-day calendar. It is a substantial object, but also possessed of a delicacy that suits its subject matter. Hand-incised holes in each page layer into tunnels representing the experience of a 10 year-old, a 40 year-old and a 70 year-old respectively. The book implies a longer narrative: the elderly person's year gets smaller and smaller, finishing in a point mid-way through the book, whereas the child's continues right through the book block to the back cover, and by implication beyond. Tarana used geometric shapes to symbolise the individual lives: the child's circle implies a simple level of experience, the elderly person's multi-faceted hexagon the complexity, and perhaps the wear and tear, of a long life. As Marcus Aurelius said, 'every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity.'

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Geordie Dialects

Traces of early invaders linger in bilingual signs to the bus station at Wallsend, although I believe the Romans invaded the farthest reaches of Northumberland without Arriva's services.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Lit and Phil

The Literary & Philosophical Society is one of my favourite libraries. This Newcastle institution is located so close to the Central Station on Westgate Road that the parquet floors resonate when intercity express trains pick up speed on their way to Edinburgh. Now the largest independent library outside London, the Society was founded in the tumultuous 1790s as a ‘conversation club’, with an annual subscription of one guinea.

From its outset, the Society had an enterprising, inquisitive and liberal nature: the first women members were admitted by 1804, and various groundbreaking demonstrations of new technology took place, such as George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp in 1815. In 1820, The Newcastle upon Tyne Society for the gradual abolition of Slavery in the British Dominions was established at a meeting held in the Society’s rooms. The lecture theatre was the first public room to be lit by electric light, in a demonstration by Sir Joseph Swan on October 20th 1880.

The library collection now holds 150,000 volumes. The first catalogues were sorted by the size of the books, which would have been serious and improving works, such as the industrial treatises pictured above. It was only in 1891 that the decision was made to purchase novels; nobody seemed any the worse for this radical move excepting possibly, as one distinguished member pointed out, “those unfortunate enough to read them”. Novels now form a significant part of the collection, including an ever-expanding choice of contemporary literature. Even so, my favourite pursuit is to turn for entertainment to the older books which describe arcane subjects from chimney sweeping and jungle exploration to the breeding of sheep.

As the Lit & Phil is a lending library, these books have not lost their personalities through years of institutionalisation. They have escaped into people's homes and travelled on trains. They have been quoted from during after-dinner speeches and read to children at bedtime, returning to the library with a souvenir claret ring or a few biscuit crumbs hidden amongst the pages. The worn volumes exude stories, not only textual, but those of past members who enjoyed the books and have left their traces.

A team of dedicated bookbinders is working on the collection's preservation, but it will be some time before the Herculean labour of restoring volumes from over two centuries of publishing is complete. Meantime, some books in the reading rooms betray not only the habits of their readers but also the rescue efforts of librarians. Bias binding is an expedient way to hold the decrepit pages and boards of histories together, and to assist long-sighted browsers a Tippex enthusiast has carefully painted the faded titles back onto their spines. By contrast, the CDs in the famous music collection are very tidily arranged in little scarlet boxes, which almost conceal their contents.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Pinocchio Library

Petr Belyi has been nominated for the Kandinsky Prize, the Russian equivalent of the Turner Prize. His wooden library, alongside other works by contemporary artists, is being shown in an exhibition at the Louise Blouin Foundation in London curated by Oleg Kulik. Belyi studied at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and in the graphics department at Camberwell College in London, before returning to live and work in St Petersburg. Much of his work explores the legible and the illegible.

Belyi's library comprises several distressed wooden bookshelves, which might have been rescued from a ramshackle Russian estate. Old scraps of paper are peeling from their sides, and you might expect to see spiders scurrying back to cobwebs between the books, if a contemporary art space wasn't such an unlikely place to find a spider. Strung on scarcely-visible wires from the ceiling, the bookshelves are reminiscent of the ladders in Louise Bourgeois' etchings, which float, never touching the ground or permitting human ascent. But Pinocchio's shelves are less equivocal. In size and stolid construction they echo 1960s tower blocks, rather than the miniature, delicate creature I imagined Pinocchio to be. The rough-hewn planks representing reading matter seem at home within the wooden barack structure which the architect Boris Bernaskoni has created to transform this Western white cube into a more fitting environment for Russian art.

Olesya Turkina and Viktor Mazin write in the Kandinsky Prize catalogue:

The books from Pinocchio's library point to the form and material of a wooden log, they pass on that memory from which the hero was born. The library preserves the knowledge in which a real boy is conceived.

Imprisoned in the wooden books, Pinocchio represents inaccessible knowledge, the melancholy law of provenance. It's as if Pinocchio's father, with a knife in hand, never came, the father who would have carved, would have given him form, pulled him out of imprisonment. The book-log preserves the secret.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


ALL THAT IS NOT US is a short film about a writer's relationship with her novel, from love to embers. The film will be launched on 8th November 2009 in London, with subsequent dates at other venues in the UK still in discussion.

The writer Emily Brett and I have collaborated on a number of projects, and we established the name Brett Campbell for our group work last year. ALL THAT IS NOT US was filmed in Brighton and rural France during 2009.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Charlie Brown used to jump in autumn leaves but last Sunday in the park I discovered that pigeons are much more fun. Luckily the brilliant Florian Greimel was on hand to capture the Fall antics.

Sinister Birds

September brings a visit from the Sinister Birds, a duo who travel the country in a small red van, accompanied by an Adana press. They've been recording their exploits and the words of the people they meet in a series of poems which employ collage and automatic writing - before finally hitting the page with some elderly Gill Sans sorts printed in brick red ink.

Pages have been printed on the seafront at St Leonard's, in a Kent copse, and now upon Highbury's pavements. The Sinister Birds will bring their tour to a close in December, by which time many 8pt evocations of England's unlikely corners will have passed across their platen.

The collection will be launched in the new year. It follows the Sinister Birds' earlier titles Land's End and Death Sentences, printed in small editions and already scarce as swallows in winter.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

New Wave: Centre for Fine Print Research

After Light will be on show at the Centre for Fine Print Research in Bristol during the IMPACT Printmaking Conference.

Curated by Sarah Bodman & Tom Sowden, 'New Wave - Demonstrating examples of concepts and formats of artists publishing', is part of a two-year AHRC funded research project: What will be the canon for the artist’s book in the 21st Century? In an arena that now includes both digital and traditionally produced artists’ books, what will constitute the concepts of artists’ publishing in the future?

After Light is part book and part light-installation; the 'pages' are enclosed in individual slide viewers.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Found Poem No. 7

With thanks to the intrepid photographer Mark Walton, who found it in Hastings.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009


Marginalia has been the flavour of the month. I've been ogling grotesque hybrid men and beasts, lascivious ladies and misbehaving monks, and I've seen grape vines and acanthus leaves in such abundance that by comparison autumn in Highbury seems rather cheerless. My passion for incunabula is a well-kept secret in comparison with my flagrant affair with contemporary book arts. So what has provoked this sudden confession?

It all began with the welcome news that the British Library has acquired the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, a rare medieval English 'model' or 'pattern' book dating from the early sixteenth century. The manuscript has been in the library of the Earl of Macclesfield since around 1750, and until recently its existence was completely unknown. Now, however, it lies serenely on display in the John Riblat Gallery of the British Library, basking in the same muted light as the great Haggadahs and Daoist Scrolls, for all the world like an up-and-coming British star who finds herself on the same table as Penelope Cruz at the Oscars.

The manuscript contains 14 different types of decorative alphabets. These include an alphabet of decorative initials with faces; foliate alphabets; a zoomorphic alphabet of initials, and alphabets in Gothic script. In addition there are large coloured anthropomorphic initials modelled after fifteenth-century woodcuts or engravings, as well as two sets of different types of borders, some of which are fully illuminated in colours and gold.

Meanwhile the publishing team at the British Library have been celebrating the rumbunctious medieval imagination, and have just released the fantastic book Images in the Margins by Margot McIlwain Nishimura. I've no doubt that many a monk would have committed sins of great moral turpitude to obtain the glossy colour printing techniques with which their painstaking gilding and illumination are so gloriously reproduced here (courtesy of Tien Wah Press, Singapore).

How modern publishing can do justice to ancient texts was the subject of a talk at the Wynkyn de Worde Society a few nights ago, given by the radiant Professor Michelle Brown. Brown initiated the 'Turning the Pages' technology at the British Library (and if you haven't already tried it, do - you'll find it a much more satisfying way of wasting time than Facebook). This inspired development makes precious texts available to a mass audience whilst preserving the original documents. Such inventive uses of digital technology, and a sensitive approach to the different strata of traditional publishing (from limited editions to glossy gift books), have been hallmarks of the Library's publishing programme. I wish that the Electronic Beowulf had been available on CD-ROM when I was studying - surely it must make Anglo-Saxon so much easier!

Brown spoke about marginalia in the Lutteral Psalter and the Holkham Bible. Both works are too magnificent to be allowed to languish in the collections as unique objects known only to academics. They were created during the 14th century, on the eve of the Black Death, one for a member of the aristocracy and the other the initiative of an enterprising Cockney artist, who both artistically and politically appears to have been a forebear of William Blake. Brown pointed out the satirical implications of marginalia: while medieval illuminators may have resorted to a copybook such as the Macclesfield Alphabet Book for style, they demonstrated wickedly independence subtexts in the imagery of animals and people drawn from daily life. On that happy note, we all adjourned to drink wine and misbehave like absurd characters from the bas-de-page.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Shadow Drawing Workshop

Emily Brett and I brought a touch of the eighteenth century to modern art at the Louise Blouin Institute in West London last weekend in a children's workshop on shadow drawing.

Exploring the use of light, dark and reflection in the works exhibited in the current show 'Design High', curated by Natalie Kovacs, the children created a world of shadows using paper cut-outs, dextrous finger twisting and drawing.

"Magical," said a grandmother. "A real buzz."

"Very inspiring and empowering," said one parent. "I loved the fact the children created in a space where real art works were on display."

The workshop culminated in a race between the children and their shadows, based on Aesop's The Hare and the Tortoise, and a triumphant march around the gallery.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Poetry Library Acquisition

The Saison Poetry Library (incorporating the Arts Council’s Poetry Collection) has just acquired my complete backlist. The library has a strong collection of text-based book art, and an exhibition programme of new work by artists.

The Library has been one of my favourite places to work since it reopened last year. It’s particularly pleasant during a heatwave, as it is located in the Southbank Centre, in easy reach of the river and the endlessly diverting fountain installation, 'Appearing Rooms' by Jeppe Hein. Unlike the British Library, it offers the serendipitous pleasures of browsing the shelves: last week I went in looking for David Constantine’s Casper Hauser, which explores man's inhumanity to man, and came out with Distance & Proximity by Thomas A. Clark, which is a delightful meditation on the pleasures of walking in the countryside.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Printing Bookmarks

Many of the bookmarks I’ve seen during my research on the topic for the University of the West of England's Bookmarks VII project date from the beginning of the twentieth century – they were produced using letterpress and type-high blocks. I decided to return to letterpress for my own design, and visited the Old Stile Press, where I printed the bookmarks on the Albion hand press from polymer plates. Nicolas McDowall snapped the following photos during one of my dawn stints on the press.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Laundry Haiku

It's nice to have a poet as a landlord. This morning I found a note outside my room after I had been waiting to use the washing machine.

Sun stunned bees and birds
Garden festooned with our sheets
Machine now empty

Yu No Hu, 21st century

‘I wanted to show the world that art is everywhere’

There is no other colour that will give you the feeling of totality. … Of peace … Of excitement … I have seen things that were transformed into black that just took on greatness.

So said Louise Nevelson, arch-haunter of East Side skips. Nevelson transformed herself into a black-clad Manhattan artist and took on greatness, becoming one of the most brilliant Abstract Expressionist sculptors. Nevelson’s post-Cubist ‘paintings in space’ were inspired by Picasso's early guitar sculpture, using oddments to create imposing monoliths. Not all her work is black, but she had a notable taste for monochrome.

A retrospective of Nevelson’s work is being shown at the Louise Blouin Foundation. I was particularly impressed by the huge work End of Day Nightscape (1973) in which 27 typecases laid end to end are filled with an assortment of bobbins, brushes and junk.

I've planned a series of children’s art workshops based around the show, and last weekend I was presumptious enough to suggest that we could make our own Nevelson sculpture.

Like Nevelson, the children used materials which had been discarded, but they worked on a slightly smaller scale. They made frames from old showboxes and filled them with cylinders (loo rolls), squares (plant pots) and accordion structures made from folded cereal boxes. The results were dynamic (and messy), but no one expected the transformation that occurred when I got out my spray can. PVA splashes and colourful commercial graphics were obliterated in mysterious black and gold. Later, Mairead O’Rourke, the education officer, organised a show of work in the gallery.

‘The work that I do is not the matter and it isn’t the colour,’ Nevelson said. ‘It adds up to the in-between place, between the material I use and the manifestation afterwards; the dawns and the dusks, the places between the land and the sea. The place of in-between means that all of this that I use – and you can put a label on it like ‘black’ – is something I’m using to say something else.’

Monday, 25 May 2009

Ellipsis 1

Ellipsis has gone to the printer! The first volume of the series will be launched at the end of July, with readings by the three authors: Frances Gapper, Bethan Stevens and Ruth Valentine.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Mirabeau Performance

Mirabeau went down a storm at our first London performance. One audience member was heard to compare the concoction of words and chords to chamber music, though our final number, Richard Price's 'Last Train', owed more to the Rolling Stones than Schubert. The compositions of the talented Caroline Trettine (above) added depth to the simplest verses and Ian Kearey's light-fingered guembe accompaniment to my poem 'Astrolatry' (a translation of a ballad by Sorley MacLean) evoked the magic of space travel.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

After Light at Bookartbookshop

As the sun went down over Hoxton Square, new poems appeared in the window of the Bookartbookshop. Many thanks to everyone who came along and enjoyed the exhibition.

Saturday, 11 April 2009


I'm taking part in 'Bookmarks VII: Infiltrating the Library System' organised by The Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England. This an annual series of international distributions of bookmarks made by book artists.

I began my research by interviewing Peter Scott, bookseller and bibliophile. Peter has amassed a collection of thousands of ephemeral items found inside books, from the common faux-leather tasseled National Trust souvenirs to unexpected items such as army cap tallies, slices of bacon and bus tickets.

As Peter says in the interview, which can be downloaded as a podcast from the title link above, "Bookmarks, whether they’re ready-made or serendipitous, make an interesting study on their own because they are part of – not of bibliography – but of readership – the actual use of the book."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Thin Ice

Snow is a fascinating subject for a writer. A child's plaything, a scientist's study and (as the January storm showed us) a force capable of turning urban lives upside-down. Looking back through my poems, I’m surprised to see how many times themes of snow and ice emerge. There's an old poem, ‘Remembering Snow’, telling of a sudden spring storm in Massachusetts, and recently a ‘Winter Villanelle’ describing a tense night walk down an icy road. There's even a long narrative about the unfortunate Captain Oates, written long before I realised that I would be going to the Pole too.

But what if my powers of description fail me when faced with the immense glacial landscapes of Greenland? How can the English vocabulary, forged to suit a slight winter chill, possibly do the job? I’ve heard elusive rumours about the number of Eskimo words for snow. In the Inuktun dictionary of the northern Greenlandic dialect, the words for ice include kaniq, qirihuq, qirititat, nilak, nilak, nilaktaqtuq, hiku, hiquaq, hikuaqtuaq, hikurhuit, hikuqihuq, hikuliaq, maniraq, hikup hinaa, qainnguq, manillat, kassut, iluliaq, ilulissirhuq, auktuq, quihaq, hirmiijaut. Rime frost, freshwater ice, sea ice, thin ice, ice on the inside of the tent, pack ice, new ice, a smooth expanse of ice, the ice edge, solid ice attached to the shore, hummocky ice, pressure ridges, pieces of floating ice, icebergs in the water, melting ice…

As Gretel Erlich points out in her remarkable memoir This Cold Heaven, about her life among the Inuit hunters, highly specific language is needed when identifying ice or snow. When you are travelling over ice sheets at speed in a sled, the type of ice means the difference between life and death – skimming and sinking. The ice is your runway, your drink, the shelter where you build an igloo when it’s time to sleep. It is even the temporary record of your travels, as Erlich notes when describing a trip on a hunter's sled: "The Inuit people never had a written language. Now the whip, trailing behind the sled, made marks in the snow that looked calligraphic in the loose running style the Chinese call ‘grass script’." Will the ice be only a temporary trace of my travels, or will I record it? One thing is sure, a poet has to survive by language, just as the hunter does.

Thanks to Clare Carter, who was inspired by a residency at Upernavik, for the photo.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Then and Now: new work by Lynne Avadenka

Lynne Avadenka, hot back from her success exhibiting at an invitational at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, has a show of recent work opening at the Lemberg Gallery in Michigan this weekend.

For those not within easy reach of Detroit, here are some images of the show, together with my short essay, commissioned for the exhibition.

Lynne Avadenka's work echoes with remembered voices. Anonymous texts and found printed matter reveal multiple histories. Her prints and bookworks confirm John Donne's belief that 'No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were...’ Then and Now was created in two continents. Avadenka begun the works during a recent artist’s residency in Germany, and later pursued the ideas in her Michigan studio. In her hands, long iridescent sheets of paper from Japanese mills act as the landing strips for relief impressions. She guides the viewer into a mirror-world of dreams, where familiar landscapes are reversed.

Architecture is a humane practise, concerned not just with space but also the people who inhabit it. Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, describes how ‘the houses that were lost forever continue to live on in us.’ Avadenka patiently disciplines the arcane mechanics of the printing press to create whole cities. She envisions buildings in small letters of lead, in rough-grained plywood, laying one muted tone on another. The resulting structures are universal: they suggest the level roofs and domes of the Middle East, the summits of city skyscrapers or the concrete units of a Midwest mall. They could be homes or prisons, empty or full of mourners. Interlocking orbits are printed over the rigid geometry of buildings in carbon and carmine, the colours of ash and blood. Restless, yet arrested in time, these irrepressible spheres spin like transcendent Sufis.

Avadenka works like an enzyme, acting on existing materials to transform them. She cuts up antique maps and re-aligns tracks into impossible journeys. She dissects a ship’s log, and collages its blank charts into abstract narratives. A Hebrew grammar and a German dictionary are spliced together; in highlighting some words, others are erased. Temporal and linguistic systems of order are broken down and reformed into new beauty.

Avadenka has named one series of prints Formenlehre, which translates as morphology, the study of both living organisms and the words which represent them. For her, language and existence are inseparable. However, far from being signifiers, many of the words in this exhibition are erased or illegible. Irrespective of border and convention, letterforms run to the very edge of the paper. Cacophonies of overprinting result in solid areas of text. Like a black box in the heart of the machine, this concealed text seems to generate secret meanings within itself, awaiting interpreters. These letters represent both every language and none; the voices of all speakers and the silenced.