Books on my shelves are about papers, leaflets and cards too. Here is a set of 50 delightful little cards from a series of “wonders” put into their cigarette packets by Wills in the 1920s.
Books with nice jackets (one bought in Hull in 1980, the other in Parksville in 1993)
I sorted out my books over Christmas. It had been a job looming for years, as I moved from one house to another watching them get steadily more disorganised, spending more and more time looking for titles I knew I had somewhere, and never knowing quite where in the muddle to shelve new acquisitions. But the point came when my study was a room big enough for most of my work books, and there wasn’t much else left that needed sorting.
I knew it would be bad. But I hadn’t anticipated quite how long it would take. Each shelf was a major operation. Which books should go together, how should I arrange the groups around the room, what should I dispose of and what keep? And for those that didn’t fit in the room but I wanted to keep, where in the house should they go – and which would those be? Those seemed obvious questions, if answering them was harder than I’d imagined.
But there was so much more. These days we research online, but it wasn’t so long ago that being a journalist (even a part-time one) meant it was helpful to keep press cuttings – that’s bits of paper, for younger readers. I found bits of paper everywhere, slotted into books and magazines, in folders, in old press packages or just stuffed in amongst the shelved books. And not just press cuttings, but letters, notes and scraps of essays. As part of my mission was to reduce the library to a size where it could all be shelved (I was fed up with tripping over piles of books in the dark), getting rid of these cuttings was an imperative. But I couldn’t just bin them. Maybe there was something important there. I had at least to glance at them. And anything I read brought back memories I’d forgotten to remember – or equally left me wondering why on earth I’d kept the cutting, or why I wrote something?
Other worlds came pouring off the shelves. So much stuff I’d acquired as a student, even as a child. There were papers and notebooks I’d filled at a rainforest conference in Washington. Fat files of notes and photocopies accumulated when I’d written books. Diaries from the south Pacific. Leaflets from exhibitions I’d gone to in London 40 years ago. It soon became clear that I wasn’t just sorting books: I was working out my personal intellectual journey. In several cases, I found more than one copy of the same title bought years apart and in different places. Remembering, checking, discarding, cleaning (all that dust), shelving, re-ordering… it wasn’t just a physical task, but an emotional one too.
So how wonderful to complete it! Immediately it seemed to clear my head, and facilitate new writing (though I’m still learning the details of my new arrangement). I’ve come to value something I would have thought very odd before, that you can see in the top photo: space on the shelves (though I confess the spaces are really smaller than that one, which I created for the effect).
I found so many things I love, I’m going to post a selection here over the next few weeks. Here’s a start, a little arrangement that came together on its own, that’s not in the study. Note the small book by archaeologist Louis Leakey on the right: a thought-provoking study of the Mau Mau problem in Kenya written when he was there, which I found in a shop in Cheltenham.
Jonathan Jones thinks the Hajj “one of the most brilliant exhibitions the British Museum has put on”. I often agree with what he writes, and I’m looking forward to seeing the show, though as I’d suspected that will have to be next week. Meanwhile, here’s a story about an English man who went to Mecca. He’s called Joseph Pitts (a likely relative, but unproven – hence “great uncle”). He is the first known English citizen to have made that journey, in around 1685, having, by his account, converted to Islam under torture.
He wrote one of those wonderful travel books when he was back in England, typically done by people we would never otherwise have heard of who ended up in some corner of the world in ways they had never planned. Another such is William Mariner, who wrote about Tonga in 1817, as I mentioned elsewhere on this blog. My friends Mike Parker Pearson and Karen Godden wrote a book about Robert Drury, who was shipwrecked in Madagascar and wrote about it in 1729.
Joseph called his story A True & Faithful Account of the Religion & Manners of the Mohametans, published in 1704. Little is known about the man, and until now the best report was a short 1920 paper by Cecily Radford (image above). Soon we will have Paul Auchterlonie’s Encountering Islam: Joseph Pitts: An English Slave in 17th-Century Algiers & Mecca, the first modern critical study of Joseph’s book.
And what a book! It begins with his capture. He was about 16 when a fishing ship he was working on, approaching Spain on her way back from Newfoundland, knew she was entering waters plagued by pirates. Yet the crew could do almost nothing about it. One morning the mate watching out from the top masthead spotted a sail in the distance. They must have known what it was as it slowly caught up. Around midday the ship was nearly upon them, and they decided they had no option but to surrender. So they hauled up their sails and waited.
The pirates took what they wanted (mostly just the men), and sunk the English ship. But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the next 10 days or so, a further three English ships and one Dutch one were captured and treated in the same way. So when they finally made land in Algeria, there were some 30 would-be slaves to take to market.
You can imagine why people who survived such experiences, with the right education and contacts back home, were persuaded to write about them.
I’m mentioning this here partly because so little is known about Joseph Pitts, and maybe we’ll be able to unearth some new information. His father John was a nonconformist, and Joseph was one of several children born in Exeter around 1662. He’s said to have been baptised at James’s Meeting (but the records are lost) and buried in Free Cemetery at Friernhay (where there are also no relevant records). If an undated will has been correctly identified, he married a woman called Hannah, they had at least two children, including Elizabeth who married a Mr Skutt, and he died around 1739. I’ve known about Joseph for some time, but only now have I started to look into his history – and excitingly with the help of an old friend may already have tracked down Elizabeth Skutt. We shall see.
Dropped into the British Museum on my way back from another Stonehenge meeting yesterday in London (of which more anon), and took these fuzzy photos with my phone. There must have been some interesting discussions in the early days of organising the Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam exhibition, not least about the sponsor HSBC and exactly what to stock in the shop. These black cubes on the floor are gorgeous, and make a lovely contrast with the great Grayson Perry pot in the hanging behind. The exhibition must be quite unlike Perry’s, yet his too is a spiritual thing, and it would be interesting to see the one after the other (possible until February 19 when The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman closes). Much looking forward to the press view of Hajj next week, if I can make it (dangerously close to the magazine’s going to press day).
The John Lewis Christmas TV ad came in for some stick as well as praise. I loved it so much I was tempted to rush to the keyboard the hour it was first aired. Today’s announcement of JL’s record-breaking Christmas sales (they got it right, then), gives me the excuse to write a quick note now.
This was an advert hoping to make us spend money at someone’s shop. Any criticism that forgot that entirely missed the point. You might as well complain that a polar bear kills seals or a traffic warden gives out parking tickets: that’s what they’re designed to do, and the way to judge them is to ask how well they do those tasks.
So we had a clever story told well, filmed beautifully and set to almost Schubertian piano playing with Amelia Warner/Slow Moving Millie’s version of a Smiths’ song. What was there not to like? If you were a Smiths’ fan, you should have been celebrating. I was introduced to Bach – entertainingly mangled by Jacques Loussier – by Collett Dickenson Pearce’s Hamlet cigar adverts when I was 12 (if you don’t know them, watch the lot here). Bach has been with me ever since, almost every day.
To pick out just one thing I haven’t seen commented on, I liked the cut from the clock pendulum to the swing, reminiscent of the flying bone cut in 2001, one of my favourite films. But what I most liked about the ad was simply that it understood its customers – you only get ads this good when client and creatives work together well. So let’s celebrate the people who made it, among them Craig Inglis (marketing director, John Lewis), Lloyd Page (head of marketing/brand) and creative agency Adam and Eve.
It didn’t hit you over the head with its products or prices, but soothed you into a world that was made entirely of John Lewis, artefacts barely on screen whose presence really came to life only when you visited a store. It was an ad that could have been designed by Danny Miller, an embodiment of his thesis in The Comfort of Things: we are shaped by the stuff around us, and we use artefacts to create who we are.
I found this nice little drawing in an antique market in Hungerford yesterday. It’s by Henry Hunt, Canadian First Nations artist who lived on Vancouver Island (1923–85). I’m largely guessing here, but it looks like a decorative greetings card or souvenir that he might have produced as a cheap purchase for his art shop in Victoria in the 70s. It shows an eagle with a toothy salmon in its claws (a common spring sight in many parts of British Columbia), in the traditional style that Bill Holm described in his Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (1965).
Henry Hunt was among a line of artists who did much to record and revive Kwakwaka’wakw art and culture in BC. His grandfather was George Hunt (1854–1933), a key figure in this field who provided the anthropologist Franz Boas with important material, collecting and recording huge quantities of artefacts and stories. His sons Richard Hunt, Stanley Hunt and Tony Hunt are also notable carvers and artists, and his daughter Shirley Ford is a button blanket maker; his grandsons Jason Hunt, Tony Hunt Jnr and Trevor Hunt, among others in the family, are continuing the tradition with carvings and paintings.
Henry became a principal carver at the BC Provincial Museum in Victoria, after apprenticeship with Arthur Shaunnesy and his father-in-law, Mungo Martin. Some prominent memorial poles are among his work, including one in Hertfordshire! This was apparently commissioned in the 1960s by a grateful lumberman from Berkhamsted, whose brother had been saved from starvation by the Kwakwaka’wakw community in Tahsis. It was erected at the timber mill in England in 1968, and now stands in a housing estate. There are around a dozen of these poles in Britain, striking pieces of art that often have fascinating stories attached as to how and why they were carved, and ended up here.
Here’s another of Henry Hunt’s drawings, an eagle and wildwoman (1973) from the Coghlan Art website.
All that from a card bought for a couple of quid!