Friday 22 September 2017
CBe has a new thing. It’s not a book and not a poster and not a postcard, but something of all three. Two of these new things, actually, and I’m calling them flappers. (Is there a proper name for them? Someone must have done this before.)
Flappers (besides being, as Wiki puts it, young Western women in the 1920s who ‘flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior‘) are A3 sheets (297 x 420mm), printed in colour both sides on 150gsm paper with images and text. Folded down to postcard size and closed with a peel-off sticker, they can be addressed, stamped and posted as postcards. (Or put in an envelope and posted as a letter. They come with their own envelopes – and in transparent display sleeves: see above – like greetings cards and Christmas cards do in gift shops. Very much like that. Except that these are reasonably priced, for what they are. The Inevitable Gift Shop: I’ve arrived there.)
The images in these two flappers come from early 20th-century postcard concertina booklets (also in the photo above): Genova: 15 vedute a colori and Bruxelles: 12 cartes postales en Photochrom. The texts are written in the voices of a 10-year-old child (Genova) and a confused Englishman in 1914 (Bruxelles).
The flappers are available from the website: here. Exclusively, as they say. They are not in shops.
I once wrote that CBe as a whole is ‘a little machine for reading aloud to strangers’ (I’d forgotten that, until it was quoted back to me). The flappers are themselves little machines in which the cogs of image and text interact to produce an odd new form of narrative.
The flappers came out of me staring at early colourised postcards and wondering about their slightly strange colours. Originally, I was going to do a 32-page booklet of the Genova postcards with a dual text: the child writing the postcards, me going off at a tangent, largely an autobiographical one. The latter part got left behind when I decided not to do the thing as a book and is now homeless. Here it is (you don’t have to read it) – an offcut, a companion text to that in Genova.
When we went on holiday, I wrote postcards. Back home, we went to see Granny in her hotel in Harrogate. Once, she held up the postcard I had written to her and asked, How do they get the colours in the right places?
I used to stamp and splash in puddles and now I don’t, I step around them.
The postcards arrive out of the blue: tiny people crossing wide roads between enormous buildings in muted sunlight. I never really knew my granny, nor my father, who died when I was five, but they are there, somewhere.
‘How do they get the colours in the right places?’
Early colourised photographs were tinted by hand (as a child might fill in a colouring book). In the 1880s a Swiss inventor developed a printing process he called Photochrom: multiple exposures of a negative were made on a lithographic limestone tablets coated with a light-sensitive solvent (bitumen, benzene), one tablet for each colour, with solvents brushed on to adjust tones. The process was commercially licensed; by the early 1900s the Detroit Publishing Company was producing several million colourised postcards a year. Just two decades later this process was redundant. For the colours, the printers worked from notes made by the photographer on the spot; in the absence of any notes they guessed.
A very young child might also ask, ‘How do they get the words in the right places?’ By the time children are old enough to articulate that question in language they are already getting the hang of it – words in their right places, or near enough – so they have no need to ask. But it’s still a good question, and one that might also be asked by many old people when the words start slipping away, deserting their places.
The French poet Jean Follain was sent to Leeds in England in 1919 at the age of sixteen to learn a new language. He resisted. To name un arbre ‘a tree’, for example, or to call pain ‘bread’, was to assign to them completely the wrong colours.
Two figures on a street in Leeds in 1919: Follain and my father, just two years younger. That was the year my father left school and started work in an iron foundry where his own father had married the boss’s daughter, so easing the way for my own eventual appearance as a member of the bourgeoisie.
‘The afternoons here go on for ages.’
The same number of hours before sunset, surely. Relative to time spent on Earth, an afternoon in the life of a child is longer than an afternoon in the life of an adult – but that’s not it. Nor is boredom: boredom is a large part of childhood but is different from adult boredom. Few young children wear watches. Long-term prisoners and very old people may also experience boredom in a different way.
They look longer, those afternoons, because of the alchemy of the colourising process, the slow light and particular tints according to which the sun is fixed for ever at an exact spot above the horizon. It’s a form of embalming.
Follain has a poem in which children hold hands and pose near a statue ‘for a photographer from the postcard company’. The branch of a rosebush shaken by the wind will come out as a blur, but not the children. ‘Their faces have a modest look, suspicious, already cruel, the town cynic might say.’
My brother, roughly the same age as me, remembers that I tried to kill him by pushing him off a wall. Or so I remember him saying. I have no memory of any such incident.
Postcards are advertisements: beggars and litter cleared off the streets as if before a visit by royalty.
Just as the colours in a colourised postcard were limited to the number of lithographic stones beyond which the process would not be commercially viable – up to fifteen, often – so too their essential vocabulary, the range of their subject matter: castles, town halls, statues, natural wonders, peasants in folkloric costume, bridges, ships, parks with flower beds. Keep off the grass.
After my father died, my mother took up gardening, and when I think of my mother now she is often in the garden, weeping, no, weeding. There was a special tool with dark red handles for clipping the edges of the lawn where it abutted a flower bed. It hung upside down on two nails in the garage. My uncle and aunt came for supper and at seven o’clock we stood in the garden under a clear blue sky and my aunt remarked how often this happens, a grey day of drizzle and then quite suddenly at seven in the evening the sun comes out.
For period of several weeks or maybe months in the late 1970s I believed that the world around me was on a lease about to expire, and the streets I walked along were a film set just waiting to be to be struck. Everyone was going to die, so there’d be no one around even to see the film. The story was over; no retakes, no director’s cut, no sequels. This was going to happen. A form of clinical depression, perhaps. To the me then there was no possibility of the me now, writing this.
Also in the 1970s – I was in my twenties – there was a day, an hour, when it occurred to me that however long I lived it was very possible that I would never be more happy than I was, right then. Over the door to the room, some fancy wrought-iron scrollwork.
Another question, this one asked by me and addressed to my other granny (she was coming down the stairs, the ones with the rust-red carpet): Is it better to be a man or a woman?
I had a notion that one’s gender was provisional up to one’s 21st (or was it 18th?) birthday, when one had to decide for keeps, and surely old people had wisdom to impart. I don’t remember her reply. (She was quite deaf, anyway, my granny. Or deaf when it suited her, my mother said.)
Dream: I am at a party in a bookshop. I am handed a letter addressed to me, c/o the bookshop, and I recognise the handwriting on the envelope. I have to push through people holding glasses of wine to find a quiet corner. The letter is from my mother, who died in 2004 – except that she didn’t: the letter explains that she had fallen in love with another woman, and because the conservative village in which she lived was unlikely to welcome this relationship she had faked her death and gone to live with Gertrud in Germany. She is happy, and she hopes that I will forgive her and she knows I must be busy but I am welcome to visit at any time.
Wanting to dance – waiting to dance – is already one half of a dance.
Today, I walked past a house in east London where I once claimed that I had never experienced grief, and the woman I was talking to looked at me as if she had opened the front door and found a slug on the doorstep. I can remember her name. I can’t remember which number in the street, which door, which colour the door was painted.
Driving my children down to Cornwall for holidays, there was a point on the A303 where I came over the brow of a hill and spread out before me was my mother’s England – wide, smooth, endless, but also domesticated, tidy, kempt: the fields patchwork-quilted, the villages within their parish bounds, the little roads tucked in. And the traffic was swishing, swishing past me, the big lorries rocking the car.
Follain spoke about writing poems in terms of making paintings: ‘I may say to myself, looking at a text: I need some red there, or some grey . . .’ Not a bowl of raspberries, not blood, but rather ‘a pronoun or some syllable of a word which, for me, is a stroke of red’.
Jean Follain was born in 1903 in a village in Normandy. His childhood coincided with the last decade of a way of life that was obliterated by the 1914–18 war, and his poems are a coalescence of memory and imagination. A boy bends to tie his shoelaces on a country road at sunset, a widow leads a red-haired child to school, a man slices off two fingers to avoid military service, a drunk mumbles to a hedgerow, a wasp buzzes in a curtain’s fold, a daughter sews by a window, ‘nimbée à la couleur du jour’: a largely pre-industrial world, framed by wars past and to come, but there is nothing either innocent or antiquarian here. The poetry is analogous, perhaps, to the early photographic process of salt printing in which a negative is pressed against paper coated with light-sensitive substances (memory, imagination) and exposed to sunlight – today’s sunlight, the light that pours from the sky at the time that the writer writes (and the reader reads). Follain’s true concern, his translator W. S. Merwin insists, is ‘the mystery of the present – the mystery which gives the recalled concrete details their form, at once luminous and removed, when they are seen at last in their places.’