Books and bookishness, in one form or another, have been a constant resource and activity in my life. I’ve worked professionally in book design, print and publishing at Coracle Press; typesetting and proof reading at the Victoria & Albert Museum; retailing at the Whitechapel Art Gallery bookshop; and book purchasing at Stevens & Brown library agency.
My escape plan from the clutches of the book machine has demanded interludes of what I call “whistling work,” which include employment as painter and decorator, gardener, plumber’s mate and labourer.
During this time, irrespective of my daytime job, writing has been a consistent activity. Publications include a number of collections of poetry; artist’s books, cards, prints and printed objects; catalogue essays; critical studies; true crime stories; short fiction; and a DVD of live readings.
I discovered I had prostate cancer in 2008, and wrote my experiences of diagnosis, treatment and recovery in book-length form as Prostate Cancer Unplugged, available as a digital book. Since diagnosis, I have been living in London and working full time as a freelance writer.
My involvement in writing and publishing goes back to the mid-1970s. At that time there was a new vogue for artists’ books, which brought together the experimental typography of concrete poetry, the sensibility for format of the livre d’artist, and the economic expediency of self-publishing. Suddenly the world was filling with publications that were (generally) small, beautiful, witty and cheap.
Perhaps the best known exponent was Ian Hamilton Finlay, who was publishing collaborative work with designers and artists under his Wild Hawthorn Press imprint. A visit to Stonypath, the house, gallery and garden created by Ian and his wife Sue, was a must for any aspiring book artist. I hitch-hiked to Scotland with a tent and sleeping bag in November 1976, arriving to a warm welcome in freezing fog. I became hooked, and started writing brief prose and poetry.
At the time I was working for a library agency in west London. A contract to supply one copy of every original British book to the Library of Congress in Washington allowed a glimpse into unexpected corners of contemporary publishing. I loved checking out some of the more recondite offerings from quirky publishers such as Beau Geste Press, Gaberbocchus and, of course, the Wild Hawthorn Press.
The notion of making artist’s publications arose through discussions with Colin Sackett, who worked alongside me at the agency. We each acquired tabletop letterpress printing machines, and began producing titles under a joint imprint. Later, with Mark Jarman on board, we became Chocolate News Books, publishing books, cards, prints, and the magazine Chocolate News.
A few months before my trek to Stonypath, Simon Cutts and Kay Roberts had launched Coracle Press. This pocket gallery, bookshop, printing and publishing outfit in Camberwell, south London, was soon a haven for lovers of artists’ books. I became a regular visitor and collector of their eclectic and exquisite miniatures. In 1981, I began working full-time at Coracle, alongside Simon and Colin Sackett.
The distinct Coracle aesthetic was evident to anyone who handled any of the publications, but not so easy to define. ‘Format follows function’ might be a part of it, or perhaps ‘every choice in book production is true to a convention, although that convention may not yet have been invented.’ Ideas evolved organically in a sequence of logical truths that circumvented the desirability of any imposed ‘design.’
Artists who bought into the Coracle aesthetic included Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Tony Cragg, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Richard Wilson, David Tremlett, Herman de Vries and many others. A series of poetry readings I organised in 1982 brought to the gallery sitting room Basil Bunting, Jonathan Williams, Tom Meyer, Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, Thomas A Clark, Glen Baxter and Ivor Cutler.
My own publications from this time include a collection of poems, The Economies, from Coracle Press; a tiny manual illustrated with vignettes by Richard and Cherry Kearton, titled How to Photograph Aeroplanes; and a boxed edition of a text printed in Dymo tape, called Cloud Study. The text was found in a 1905 publication, “Cloud Studies” by Arthur Clayden: “There is always a danger that the use of any system of names based on types shall lead to the neglect of anything not typical.”
This began an interest in found poetry that resulted in diverse publications, and the study of found poetry that may be found on the Downloads page. Plaster Casts in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a spotter’s checklist of museum numbers, with space to write “where and when seen.” Duck reprints a sequence of found stills of a bird splashing down on a river in a burst of spray, each captioned “a duck is…” in homage to Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is…” On the last page we learn that the bird is a coot. Pre Cast Post is a collection of poems that collate dictionary examples of the usage of conjunctions, as in this example:
Recent poetry titles include From Furnace to Paradise… and back, an exploration of the Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, in poetry and prose with colour images by William Finnigan. A collection of verse and found poems, 2005-2008, is published by Coracle as Some Alternatives to Flock. Full details of these and all available titles may be found by clicking here.
My first commissions for writing copy came in the early 1990s. I was working as a paste-up assistant to the book artist and murderologist Brian Lane, who had contracts to write, design and layout a series of true crime books for Harrap. When he asked me to ghost-write a sample story, I attempted to emulate Brian Lane’s own “voice,” as ghost writers do. This was the start of a creative collaboration to which I eventually contributed fifty or sixty articles, some of which appeared under his name with no questions asked. They were published in true-crime magazines and a series of titles for Headline, including The Encyclopaedia of Serial Killers and The Encyclopaedia of Women Killers:
“James Alfred Moody was an armed robber and gangland heavy, a muscle-bound keep-fit fanatic and member of the infamous torture gang led by Charles Richardson. In December 1980 he achieved notoriety by escaping from Brixton Prison with convicted IRA terrorist Gerard Tuite, an escape which provoked outrage in Parliament and led to the removal of the prison governor. ‘Long Jim’ Moody evaded capture for thirteen years, and it is suspected that he was involved in contract killings during that time: a former Flying Squad officer said he was ‘mad and violent enough’. Certainly there is some evidence that Moody was the man who strode into The Bell public house in East Street, Walworth, south London in August 1991 and shot dead two customers – Stanley Silk, an innocent bystander, and David Brindle. Brindle was none other than the nephew of Francis ‘Mad Frankie’ Fraser…”
The experience of condensing bundles of data into reasonably fluent prose of a particular length, against a tight deadline, was a great apprenticeship. I enjoyed writing to commission, and have since produced essays for a number of compendiums and catalogues, including The Printed Performance for the Research Group for Artists Publications; Englshpublshing for Colin Sackett; Certain Trees for Centre des livres d’artistes; Returning for David Bellingham; and Vinyl for an exhibition curated by Coracle at Sullivan’s Quay, Cork, from which this is extracted:
“One problem is the way we have tended to avoid contact between what we call art and the real physical world. We protect art as though it were the relics of a saint, keep it under acid-free wraps, and display it in the blandest, barest, least engaging spaces. The beautiful white emptiness of the contemporary gallery is a sensory deprivation cell, where anything with a bit of shape or colour looks compelling. And we start to feel, uneasily, that maybe art produced for the white box doesn’t have to try so hard, or at least that it suffers from the luxury of taking the absence of the interference of everyday life for granted. The experience of the Saatchi Gallery’s placement of consumer conceptualism in the ‘Yes Minister’ panelled labyrinth of London’s County Hall, for example, shows how easily art can be turned limp by architecture.”
My first self-generated prose publication, Direct from Nature, appeared as a Little Critic pamphlet with Coracle Press in 1991. The result of a long-standing interest in the work of nature photographers Richard and Cherry Kearton, this brief excursion appeared in a second, enlarged edition published under the same title by Colin Sackett in 2007. My interest in the Keartons continues, and I am currently researching Cherry Kearton’s life and work for a project entitled The Man Who Shot Theodore Roosevelt.
Recent prose titles include Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, a study of the various ways we attempt to capture, preserve, imitate and influence the songs of birds, with a lexicon of ‘bird words.’ Full details of this and all available titles may be found by clicking here.
An artists’ book differs from an art books in being the event itself, not the souvenir. This distinction was polemical at Coracle, where books and artworks shared common space and esteem. I learned to consider wider options in choosing to create a work as print, book or object; as ephemera or collectible; unique or multiple.
Some of my constructions and publications have been exhibited at group exhibitions, including:
Some English Artists’ Books, Frankfurter Kunstverein 1982
Plux-value, Galerie Eric Fabre, Paris, 1983
Under One Roof, Riverside Studios, London 1983
The Artist Publisher, Crafts Council, 1986
Standing on Trifles, Southampton Art Gallery, 1992
Nonnonstop, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 1995
Art for Amnesty International, Shrewsbury, 2002
Certain Trees, CDLA, France, 2006 & V&A Museum, London, 2008
A one-man show of wall constructions, Song Posts, was held at Coracle Gallery, 1984
I became interested in the performance possibilities of poetry as a result of a presentation at the 2006 Wellington Literary Festival. This was of my collection of Shropshire poems, From Furnace to Paradise… and Back, which included slides of industrial archaeology in Shropshire by the late William Finnigan. Wanting something more than a conventional poetry reading, I put together a performance of readings with slide show and cello accompaniment by Sarah Pickwell. Subsequent (unaccompanied) readings have been given at venues including the Small Publishers Fair, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the Dead Poets Inn, Holbrook. In current poetry projects, my concern is with creating platforms for vocal interpretation.
In 2010 I worked with video producers Chris Cunniff and Helina Ivask on a series of recordings of performed poetry. The result was a DVD of 17 miniature poetic dramas, shot in the studio or on location. Full details may be found by clicking here.