Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

ThreadsI don’t remember putting Threads (2015) on a wishlist, but I think I must have done – otherwise the choice my friend Barbara made in buying it and sending it to me was more serendipitous than I can expect. I imagine I put it there while reading Claire Harman’s biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner – but I had the happy experience, with my terrible memory, of forgetting anything about the connection at all until Warner’s name cropped up near the beginning of this book.

In brief, Craske was a fisherman who had a serious breakdown that left him unable to continue that profession – and he turned, instead, to painting and (later) embroidery. He was discovered by Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland, and briefly became something of a cause celebre in a select circle – though has since been rather neglected; the museums that hold his work are often ignorant or ashamed of the fact.

Blackburn’s book – beautifully produced by Jonathan Cape, with a lovely solidity and brilliantly chosen cover and illustrations – isn’t really a biography. It’s more an account of tracing his life story, which emerges in bits and pieces as the book continues – and of Blackburn’s life as it continues alongside.

I feel like I don’t know much more about Craske than I did when I read the blurb on the inside jacket. He proves quite an elusive figure – beyond the bare framework that Blackburn details of his ancestry, his occupation, and his war. Perhaps he let his work do the talking – and there is plenty of that in this book; we see his depictions of the sea and ships which he painted on any surface that was available, from trays to biscuit tins. Eventually there is the extraordinary, large embroidery of the D-Day landings – a tiny part of which is shown on the cover. Usually the art conceit of using ‘detail’ to mean anything that isn’t the whole image really annoys me – but in this case it is only a detail. Craske’s work, whether in paint or embroidery, is a striking mix of naivety and knowledge. As a fisherman, he knows precisely how the sea behaves; as an artist, he is teaching himself and has a unique perspective.


Two people truly emerge from this book. One is Laura Craske – John Craske’s wife, who valiantly and quietly cared for him through mental illnesses that she did not understand (and his brothers – defeating any sort of stereotype of unsophisticated rural fishermen – were equally sensitive to Craske’s ailments and requirements). She was also determined for his work to have exposure, when offered, though also rather alarmed at the money that Warner and Ackland offered her for the work. By incremental millimetres, we learn about Laura’s character and resilience, and I certainly warmed to her.

But far and away the most dominant character in this book is Julia Blackburn herself. Her style of writing is so unusual, as is her approach. I had to check to see if she’d written any books before – she has, quite a few – because this feels so like somebody writing for the first time, and striking it lucky. Like Craske’s work, and (who knows) maybe influenced by his work, Blackburn’s prose is almost primitive. Here, for instance, she is doing some research into the family:

Philip came back with the photograph album and there was Grandfather the good doctor, tall and pale-eyed with a big blond moustache and a look of benevolent abstraction on his face. And here was Granny Cats his wife, also abstracted, but less benevolently so, or was that my imagination? And here was their infant son who appeared so thin and wan and that you would never expect him to survive into adulthood, but he got through and became a solicitor and married and had a son called Philip so that was good.

So many of her accounts seem to be about artwork she forgot to see or questions she forgot to ask. The raw threads of her biographical technique are exposed here, like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery. Many of the people who might have known the family are now very old – and she comments on the erratic interviews she manages to get. And the tangents! A thought leads to a thought. There is a chapter on a man she knew who had a parrot, which has nothing to do with Craske; there is a chapter that is a story a man called Keith sent her; there is a surprising chapter on Einstein’s visit locally (and accounts of the firm rebuttals made to her by Einstein experts that he couldn’t possibly have been seen riding a bike at that point, as he had yet to learn). There are sections of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, which I, of course, loved. There are very moving chapters on Blackburn’s husband and his illness.

It is all a very unusual combination, and would put Hermione Lee into hysterics – but it works, and completely beguiles. Blackburn does nothing linearly. The quest for Craske is the book, and he is not the subject – instead he, and his art, are (yes) the golden threads shimmering through the centre of this strange and wonderful work.

3 books about reading

I am so proud of everybody for the response to my most recent post. You’ve really shown the positives that can come of people coming together on the Internet. It brings a tear to the eye! I’m excited about my Furrowed Middlebrow books arriving, and will certainly report back on what I think of the books.

But for today – let’s look at some books about reading. This has certainly my go-to comfort-genre of choice over the past year or so. I picked up quite a few in my trips to America, and I am endlessly entertained, informed, and charmed by them – thankfully there are plenty more to read on my shelves. As I often turn to them when I want episodic distraction, I don’t always get around to making proper reviews of them – so I’ve grouped three together for mini-reviews. Sound ok?

Why I Read (2014) by Wendy Lesser

why-i-readThe subtitle to this one is ‘the serious pleasure of books’, and Lesser is certainly not taking the role of the average reader. She wears her education heavily (if that is the opposite of ‘lightly’ in this instance), and it becomes rather farcical how often she mentions Henry James, BUT it’s still an enjoyable and extremely thought-provoking look at the different elements of reading. She divides her chapters in ‘Character and Plot’, ‘The Space Between’, ‘Novelty’, ‘Authority’, ‘Grandeur and Intimacy’, and ‘Elsewhere’ – make of those what you will – and her thoughts and arguments cover great swathes of territory and many writers and nationalities.

I would certainly need to re-read to familiarise myself afresh with her lines of argument, and this is closer to a scholarly book than most of the books-about-reading I enjoy, but is still certainly accessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, it would be infuriating in a scholarly context, because there are no footnotes or referencing

Why does she read? The whole book is, of course, building that answer – but I also liked (if did not agree with) the summing-up of sots of ‘I read […] for meaning, for sound, for voice – but also for something I might call attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself’. I’d certainly recommend Why I Read – and it is also beautifully designed and printed – but somebody should have a word in her ear about how often one can get away with throwing in Henry James. I shall always wryly smile in recollection of ‘Very little in the world can compare with the experience of reading, or even rereading, The Golden Bowl, but we cannot always be reading The Golden Bowl‘. Well quite.

The Art of the Novel (2015) edited by Nicholas Royle

art-of-the-novelI asked for this collection of essays for my birthday last year – thanks Rhiannon! – because my friend (can I say that on the strength of meeting once?) Jenn Ashworth has an essay in it. You may recall I raved about Fell earlier in the year; in this collection she writes on ‘Life Writing / Writing Life’. Everybody in the collection discusses different angles on how to write, from genre (Leone Ross on magical realism; Livi Michael on historical fiction) to broader concerns like place, details, plot twists, etc. Besides Ashworth, I’d only heard of a handful of the authors (Alison Moore, Stella Duffy, and – believe it or not – two Nicholas Royles, whom I’d got confused on a previous occasion) but I am hardly the benchmark for knowing about modern literature. Only one contributor, one of the Nicholas Royles in fact, takes a weird tangent – into the concept of the death of the author – which has little to do with practical advice.

This was one of the books I read in Edinburgh, and it was entertaining – I was reading it more out of interest than seeking advice – but I did particularly like how each essayist ended their section with a list of books they admired or recommended. It was interesting how often Muriel Spark’s excellent book The Driver’s Seat came up.

The Whole Five Feet (2009) by Christopher R. Beha

the-whole-five-feetThe most personal of the three books featured today, and the most unusual in concept (is there a word for ‘gimmicky’ that isn’t negative?) – and by far the longest subtitle. *Clears throat* ‘What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else’.

The great plants in question are the Harvard Classics – Beha decides that he will try to read all of the Harvard Classics in a year. They supposedly take up five feet on a shelf, hence the title. For those not au fait with the series (as I was not), it was created in 1909 to be the best literature, fiction and non-fiction, made available to the everyman, in 51 chunky volumes. It is quite an unusual collection of works; the blurb describes it as ‘from Plato to Dante, Shakespeare to Thoreau’, but it also includes some more idiosyncratic choices – like Two Years Before the Mast, an account of sailing by Richard Henry Dana, Jnr.

What makes this book so engrossing is how well Beha combines the reading experience with personal accounts of his own life – losses and illness chiefly – that accompany the year, writing with a empathetic dexterity that makes the reader warm to him and care deeply. The actual responses to the books become less important as The Whole Five Feet continues, and it ultimately seems more of an endurance test than an engagement with literature. In some ways, this is more memoir than a book-about-reading, but it is none the worse for that.

The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Story-of-AliceIt’s not all that long til the next issue of Shiny New Books and I am very behind with linking to reviews I wrote in the last issue. And I did want to point out a few – starting with The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. It’s all about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice Liddell, and Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll. And Robert Douglas-Fairhurst just happened to my undergraduate tutor. So this review sort of covers both those things… starting with this paragraph to lure you in. Read the whole thing over at Shiny New Books!

There are few children’s literary characters who are as well known as Alice et al. From Alice bands to Mad Hatters, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, and more, these creations have passed beyond the original two books they appeared in and into the wider consciousness. By finding themselves there, the connection to their author has grown hazy and uncertain over the years – was, indeed, always hazy and uncertain. Even the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is more likely to be called Alice in Wonderland. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has the unenviable task of disentangling myth and rumour, finding the roots of Alice in an academic’s room in Oxford – and what he has produced is an enchanting maelstrom of facts, accounts, and possibilities… in which Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) remains, somehow, a little elusive.

The Immortals by S.E. Lister

The ImmortalsWhat’s the opposite of a time-traveller? I suppose it’s somebody who is stuck in one time – and that’s precisely the predicament of the Hyde family at the beginning of S.E. Lister’s novel The Immortals (published a few months ago – and indeed read a few months ago; I’ve been intending to review it for so long, but… Christmas got in the way). They have been living and re-living 1945 for many years, moving at the end of every year, and judging passing time by location rather than world events. This has been the decision of Rosa Hyde’s father, who – for some reason she doesn’t really understand – can’t bare the idea of leaving the year, or the ‘main event’ of going up to London for the declaration of peace.

I say ‘at the beginning’ of the novel, but in fact the novel opens with Rosa’s return – from where (or, more importantly, when) is not immediately clear. (And what an opening line it is! I love its intrigue.)

Rosa came home after seven years, in the same year she had left. It was the beginning of the wet spring she knew so well. She found their cottage on the edge of a village, the latest Hyde home in a string of many, tucked out of the way behind a disused cattle barn. There were sandbags stacked against the steps, blackout curtains in every window. Bindweed framed the doorway. Beyond the fields a church spire rose into the dusky sky, lashed by rain, its chimes silenced.

Lister has a knack for portraying a time and place quickly and effectively. This is an example, but there are plenty in the novel – because we then see all the times and places that Rosa has travelled. Once away from the 1945-dwelling of her father, she is able to travel much more widely. We rush through a maelstrom of places and periods, with local colour thrown in at just the right amount – on one page, afraid in a busy Victorian street; shortly after, made a near-deity in a bygone era. That section was rather lovely – seeing Rosa elevated in that way, after her years of 1945 tedium – but things become more complex when she meets Tommy Rust. He is a fellow Immortal (and believes in this immortality with his whole heart), and something of a suave, risky gent of the sort that is rather dashing in literature and might not be so much outside of it.

And then there is the soldier Harding, who makes things even more complicated – though I thing I was more affected by the brothers who travelled together as much as possible, and were distraught at the possibility of being separated. But, y’know, brothers always get me.

I’m not much of a one for time-travel novels in general, but I certainly am for novels about family dynamics – so I liked The Immortals best when Rosa was dealing with abandoning her family, and coping with missing many years of her younger sister’s life, and that sort of thing – all of which was handled nicely. The climax of the day peace was declared in 1945 – a day on which Rosa’s father always goes to London to join in the celebrations, trying to avoid other iterations of himself in the crowd – was very moving, and an excellent peak. Indeed, it seems rather as though the non-sci-fi sections of The Immortals were my favourites… and perhaps that was inevitable. But more skill is required to make quotidian events and relationships captivating than is needed to pick a selection of intriguing years and write about them – so kudos for Lister there, and it will be intriguing to see what she could turn her hand to in a more earth-bound genre, if she ever chooses to give that a whirl.

Thanks, Sophie, for sending me a copy of this book.


My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn

my-KM-projectI love Katherine Mansfield, and I love Notting Hill Editions, so I ran towards the chance to read My Katherine Mansfield Project (2015) by Kirsty Gunn when it came up for grabs over at Shiny New Books. And it was very much a pleasure. You can read the full review over at SNB, and – as is becoming usual – below is the beginning of my review, to tempt you:

The premise for My Katherine Mansfield Project is admittedly rather niche. If one is not already a fan of Kirsty Gunn, then one had better be a fan of Katherine Mansfield (so one might think). This long essay is in essence an homage to Mansfield and her homeland and her legacy – yet, at the same time, it can be enjoyed simply as one author admiring and experiencing communion with another, while admiring and experiencing communion with a beautiful place.

Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI’ve been very remiss with pointing you in the direction of reviews I wrote for Shiny New Books Issue 7 – and there are some truly brilliant books there that I would very much encourage you to read. While you’re flicking through the issue, I hope you noticed Shirley Jackson’s exceptional Let Me Tell You – a sort of ‘B-sides’ collection of her stories, essays, and memoirs. It’s wonderful. Read the whole review over at SNB, but here’s the beginning to whet your appetite…

This is the third Shiny New Books issue in which I’ve had the privilege of writing about Shirley Jackson’s works – and, indeed, I’ve bolstered out those two previous reviews with five books. It’s fair to say that I’m a fan, and love her dark, surreal books and her cosy domestic memoirs more or less equally. Well, here is a massive treat for Jackson aficionados (and also those who have yet to make her acquaintance): a bumper book of stories, essays, and other writings, many of which have never been available in any format before. Cue balloons, streamers, and much celebration!

Latest Readings by Clive James

Latest ReadingsOne thing and another means I haven’t highlighted my reviews in the latest issue of Shiny New Books, so I’ll kick off with one. I’m on a bit of a spate of hunting out books about reading, since that’s more or less my favourite genre. They are not all that plentiful, but Clive James’ Latest Readings adds to that number – and I reviewed it for Issue 7. You can read the whole review at Shiny New Books, but this intro might entice you further…

I have to confess that when I picked up Latest Readings, I knew very little about Clive James’ life and work. And, indeed, when I put it down I wasn’t much the wiser – but I knew a lot more about his reading tastes. That was why I bought the book: I will run towards books about reading, and was not disappointed in this thoughtful and engaging collection of musings.

Bloomsbury’s Outsider: a life of David Garnett by Sarah Knights

Bloomsburys-OutsiderYou may have heard me mention Lady Into Fox by David Garnett here a few times – indeed, it’s on my ongoing list of 50 books you must read. Lady Into Fox was a focus of my DPhil and I read plenty of archival material around Garnett and the 1920s. Just my luck that a biography was published now, after I’ve finished. Ditto one of Edith Olivier. I’m not bitter, honest.

But, being serious, it’s rather lovely to have everything about David Garnett’s life in one place, and I was pleased to review Sarah Knights’ biography for Shiny New Books. As usual, you can read the beginning of my review below, or head over to SNB to read the whole thing.

Sarah Knights claims that she wrote her biography of David Garnett partly to restore his reputation – not as a writer, but as a person. His wife’s memoir Deceived With Kindness had painted him as a libertine who took advantage of her youth – perhaps one of the reasons that it is so seldom quoted in Bloomsbury’s Outsider – and Knights felt that was an injustice. Well, her book is exhaustive, fascinating, and… does nothing whatever to dispel Garnett’s libertine reputation.