My book of the summer has to be Threads by Julia Blackburn, a book about a man by a woman. It's not just that it's a beautiful books to hold and read, and it's not simply because it's about a self-taught artist who created beautifully stitched pictures with needle and thread, and it's not due to the fact that the story takes place in East Anglia with its huge skies, seas and stretches of shingle which I like so much. It's also because Julia Blackburn has written a wonderfully unusual and strange biography of John Craske in a gentle, slyly subversive style.
To begin with, I couldn't quite understand the many digressions and detours she makes both in terms of the people and places she introduces, and into her own life. I was also pretty surprised when she admits that she missed a certain piece of work, or forgot to make a note of a detail, or simply gave up with a line of questioning. And then, because the book is so readable, so fascinating, so mildly and attractively eccentric, I began to enjoy and be amused and intrigued by the loose threads and see that in fact Julia Blackburn is telling a much richer, much more poetic story than any conventional, linear biography.
Her approach is also an honest way of looking at someone else's life. There are threads running through John Craske's story but many of them are left untied, in just the same way he left the threads on the backs of his embroideries still dangling. It must be frustrating for a biographer of an artist whose life is very much undocumented to follow trails and leads and avenues, only to find they take you nowhere - or somewhere very different. But I loved Julia Blackburn's transparency and delicacy when dealing with difficult curators, conflicting accounts and practical issues; it's refreshing to see the real problems facing someone who is trying to tie down someone else's life. In John Craske's case, it just can't be done, and I admire JB for weaving in her slips, omissions and forgetfulness.
The book also flies in the face of the accepted practices of academic research in which it is expected that every last piece of information can be used, verified and put into an account which straitjackets the argument/theory/subject. This is nonsense, because no researcher or biographer can ever produce a 'definitive' version of someone's life. Julia Blackburn is in her sixties and I think this affects the way she writes this biography: she's experienced and wise, sees that life imitates art, and that there are loose threads in everyone's story.
One of the reasons we went to Aldeburgh was to catch the last weekend of the John Craske exhibition. I'm not as excited about his paintings, but it I was fascinated by his embroideries, the movement and shading and textures he created with his stitches and the wonderfully boyish details which reminded me of Tom's panoramic pictures of fights, planes, soldiers and battlefields when he was young. Stitching was Craske's art and his therapy, and it made me happy to know that the backs of these pictures were full of knots and bumps and dangling pieces of thread, because while on the surface art and life may look neat and tidy, there's always another side and I'd much prefer to see this than any equally neatly tied-up reverse, no matter what dragon needlework teachers say.
[Adèle Geras wrote an interesting review here]