I send you this Cadmium Red…

John Berger & John Christie
Actar (2000)

I Send You This Cadmium RedI must have been feeling flush when I bought this. It’s a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, impeccably realised. It feels expensive.

Essentially, it’s a dialogue, an exchange of correspondence, between two exemplary artists on the subject of colour: John Berger, the novelist, critic, painter, poet; and John Christie, the filmmaker and artist.

Berger I’d heard of. His Ways of Seeing was a key text in my studies, first as a student of Media and Communication, then later as a student of English literature and linguistics. The university course that most shaped my learning, that best trained my mind, that forever changed the way I looked at the world, was called Ways of Reading, after Berger. I have a few of his books of essays on my shelves, and as much as I love his voice I do find him a difficult read.

I send you this Cadmium Red… is a book that requires no prior knowledge, no specialist learning, no fancy vocab. Just a bit of time to call your own for a while. Big thoughts like the ones contained in here need space to land. I think about this book from time to time for lots of reasons: as an example of the best in mass print reproduction; as a text that sings the virtues of a fine editor; as a paragon of the kind of connection I tend to seek out in friendships; and as an inspiration for the kinds of places quiet, mindful contemplation can take you when artfully applied.

In a series of letters, Berger and Christie discuss colour in all its complexity and variety: where colour comes from (crushed beetles, rust, chlorophyll); its qualities (“slippery” gold, “luminous” blue, “liquid, undulating, mobile, pushy” green); and its application by various painters (a Caravaggio red, a Joseph Beuys brown, an Yves Klein blue), alongside anecdotes, life stories, quotations, allusions, associations. It’s a quirky history of 20th Century western art written up as an epistolary chinwag. It so happens that the chinwags in question are learned, erudite, insightful, candid and make for joyful company. You just want to hang out with them all the time. You want to be part of their gang. As well as the letters they exchange, sometimes, they send poems, or pictures, or – best of all – unique, hand-made artists’ books.

I bought Cadmium Red… when I was getting into making my own books. I think perhaps because I was getting into making my own books. And I got into making books around the same time I was thinking about getting into writing more seriously. As such, making books and the writing that goes into them have always been inextricably entwined for me. I feel happier when the two things come together.

In 2001, at the suggestion of a close friend, A-, we both went up to Aberdeen for the weekend to attend a crash course in book-binding at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen. A- had studied fine art photography at the Glasgow School of Art and already knew a wee bit about making books. I was a total newbie.

Marking. Measuring. Cutting. Scoring. Folding. Stitching. Gluing. Pressing. The tutor took us through all the basic bookbinding techniques. I learned that paper has a grain, which you can use (or choose to work against) when folding. I learned how to stitch stacks of sheets laid flat, how to stitch pamphlets. I learned what a folio is and how to stitch several of them together to make a hard-back book block. I learned the astonishing versatility of the bone folder: a genius piece of technology and, of the many tools in the bookbinder’s arsenal, weapon of first resort.

I came away from that weekend with the feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was capable of making art. That art was something I could do. Imagine that.

A- I and I embarked on a project soon after our Peacock weekend called Praties is Tatties, a series of six hand-stitched books incorporating A-‘s photography and my text on the subject of, well, potatoes. We sold a few at the Glasgow Art Fair and returned to Peacock a year later with another project called Inventories, where I interviewed various people about an object and A- photographed it.

I’ve made countless books since. When I studied for my Masters in creative writing, my submissions were always presented as hand-made books. I continue to make books when the situation seems to require one and I think the intended recipient might enjoy it. I’ve made books for many of my friends. I made many for a difficult girl I once loved. I made one earlier this year for my dad’s 70th birthday celebration – a collection of postcards from guests at his birthday lunch last year, recalling a memorable event with him, accompanied by three words to describe him. Recently, a dear friend from the old country whom I hadn’t heard from for over 20 years sent me a letter. I was surprised and touched and delighted. It seemed fitting – inevitable, really – to respond with a book.

And, looking back, I realise that the act of making books as a way of connecting in a very personal way with people I hold dear comes from the correspondence collected in I send you this Cadmium Red.

Ideas take shape in infinite ways. And sometimes the best way is with a book.

Advertisements

In search of the spirit of adventure – a pecha kucha

Confession: I kind of hate the word ‘adventure’.

Bear_Hunt_BookIt conjures all the wrong things for me.

Snow shoes. Crampons. Special hats. Technical fabrics. Terrible fashion. Shite weather.  Long distance air travel. Mosquitoes. Bragging rights. Selfies at altitude.

Adventures out thereOk. ‘Hate’ might be too strong a word for it. But it’s up there with once-useful words like  ‘narrative’ and ‘curate’ and ‘bespoke’ that have been worn to the knuckle from over-use by slack-thinking newspaper columnists and advertisers to describe every kind of human experience, from buying a loaf to falling in love, from getting dressed to dying of cancer.

Adventure Game

‘Adventure’ is like ‘fun’. Or the BBC. It’s one of those things we’re conditioned to believe is inherently Good, something we’re obliged to enjoy and we feel like losers if we don’t.

Like watching a Sunday night drama, going on an adventure often ends up being a little bit disappointing, a little bit dull, and leaves a feeling at the end of the whole thing being less than one had hoped.

SherlockAnyway, the best adventures seem to happen to other people. To heroes. To characters. The larger than life sociopaths in fancy dress with brandable first names who populate our popular culture. Sherlock. Tintin. Tarzan. Alice.

But people like you and me? Unless you’re secretly Superman, or this guy . . .

Indiana Jones

. . . ‘adventures’ are probably something you have in a lifestyley instagrammy facebooky kind of way: “Yeah, we had a wee adventure at the farmers’ market on Sunday. We totally curated our own breakfast out of artisan meat and hand-started sourdough.”

An adventure these days is basically anything that involves shopping.

Or a lot of booze and a long taxi ride home.

Or any kind of trip to East Kilbride.

Roundabouts

But maybe, I thought, the action heroes and hipster tourism mob have skewed my understanding of the word. So, with my best schoolboy Latin and my rudimentary grasp of Romance languages I went off in search of fresh insight.

We have the prefix ‘ad’ – meaning ‘towards’. And the Latin ‘venire’, meaning to come or arrive, suggesting that the essence of adventure is something like “Towards arrival”,

abba arrival

It invokes excitement, requires us to imagine what’s ahead. In the anticipation of arrival, adventures are grammatically in the future perfect tense: they’re about what will have been.

Like that scene in Gregory’s Girl where Madeline orders a ginger beer with ice cream and schools her brother in the meaning of adventure:

Gregory and Madeline

“The nicest bit is just before you taste it. Your tongue goes all tingly. But that can’t go on forever.”

‘Adventure’ invokes risk – of success as well as of failure. We go on a bear hunt and it’s all jolly japes – but what happens when we actually find the bear?

Well, at the very least, that part of the adventure’s over and you’re suddenly into something else entirely.

revenant

You may even have jumped to another genre.

The ‘ad’ prefix also implies movement, impetus, outward momentum. (Adventures are always out there.)

But what about us introverts? Can you have an ‘inventure’? And really, what happens when you find the object of your desire? What happens when you successfully woo the princess? What happens after you slay the beast? What then?

I say never arrive.

moebius road

I say, don’t buy the special hat. You’ll use it once and never again and it’ll sit there in your cupboard as a mocking reproach to the boring bastard you’ve become since your bespoke Himalayan adventure in, what . . . was it really fifteen years ago?

No goals

What if your adventure didn’t have a destination? What if you made a point of there being nothing to achieve? No summit to reach. No princess. No beast. No crampons. What if it never required going shopping? What if you just went – not knowing what was out there, but going anyway?

Or what if you didn’t go anywhere at all? Could you still retain the spirit of adventure? The anticipation? The momentum? The risk?

walk the plank

I’ll tell you what happens when you travel without a destination. What happens is my career. All six of them, so far, that I’ve walked out on without so much as even packing mosquito repellent.

And when I eventually get round to quitting my current job, I’ll use the same phrase I used all those other times: I’ll tell myself, It’ll be an adventure.

lao tzu

I’m reminded of Lao Tzu, who said: “A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.”

Even when it’s seemingly into the void. In fact, especially so.

Which is a hard thing to square with how we’re encouraged to live our lives, as well as our jobs, according to goals and targets: highly defined, endlessly reviewed, SMART – the unquestionable articles of faith of a corporatised world.

enso - incomplete

Also difficult to square is this hand-drawn circle – one of the symbols of Zen Buddhism. It stands for lots of things: the beginning and the end of all things, simultaneously the looking-for and the finding. It’s a reminder of the imperfections in all things, that all things are perfect as they are. It gently invites us to stop striving for perfection, to just let things be.

Klein Void

It also stands for the Void. It’s what Sherlock sees through his glass. It’s what Tarzan contemplates reaching for his next vine (maybe). It’s what I see when I’m halfway through a project that I’ve lost faith in. I start to forsee that its completion will fall very far short of the very high standards I’ve set myself.

Indy leap - feet

When that happens, it’s like I’m about to fall off the edge of the world. None of my knowledge and learning has any meaning any more. My intuition is lost to me. I feel blank, confused, worthless. The sense of adventure I started out with has given way to a sense of futility.

I begin again to walk down the familiar path towards the diabolical town at the end of the line called Failure, to drink deep from the bottle of self-doubt and pick a fight with myself at the saloon of self-loathing.

Indy leap - step

Sometimes it takes a leap of faith into the void to find our Holy Grail, that the Void itself can sometime support us.

If we can be true believers in the things that support us, that give impetus and momentum to our abilities in the world – such things as curiosity, integrity, diligence, creativity, community and love – then we can embrace uncertainty, we can welcome doubt, and enjoy the process of figuring it all out as we go.

Enso - complete

Here’s Sherlock’s Zen looking-glass again. Turns out there are two versions. The completed version is for me the more energising. It implies a continuous loop. The idea of adventure that most inspires me is not one that resembles a journey or a narrative – no beginning, middle and end – but one which is ongoing.

detective

For me, the trick to living an adventurous life is finding the thing that keeps you looking, that keeps you moving.

It’s about locating the impetus towards an arrival that may or may not come, that if it does is fleeting and transitory and which only gives fresh impetus to one’s momentum. The continuous loop.

bicycles ai weiwei

Which, conveniently, as a lover of bicycles and bicycling, is how bikes work.