Tag Archives: illustrated book

Inspiring, appalling, amazing…

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER: a photographic recordby assorted Magnum photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Inge Morath, Werner Bischof, David Seymour… Published 1985

coverWhen I bought this book, I could barely afford it. I was a baby bookseller, and anyway the book industry has never been noted for lavish (or even sustainable) levels of remuneration. Even with staff discount, I had to save up. But it was worth the money. It’s a superb collection of photographs taken in, roughly, the ten years following the end of World War II, by some of the best photographers of the last century. And probably this one, too.

It’s strange to think, now that – as Grayson Perry put it in his recent Reith lecture – photography ‘rains on us like sewage from above’, just how powerful the photographic image was, and not all that long ago. It can still be incredibly strong, of course; it’s just that it can be difficult to pull the powerful out from the welter of everything else. Not so, once upon a recent time.

wow(Ernst Haas, Returning prisoner of war, Vienna, 1945)

In the aftermath of WW2 a group of photographers (photojournalists, I suppose) met in New York and talked about forming a different sort of photo agency, a co-op – Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Robert Capa, George Rodger and William Vandivert. The last named dropped out; Rodger was often away and that left the other three founder members, so Paris became the base for what was to become the most famous photo agency ever: Magnum. Gradually many others joined, some of the most illustrious photographers around, and the same is still true today. (And today, 22 October, would have been Robert Capa’s 100th birthday – a happy coincidence.)

Some of the photographs in this book date from before 1947, but the aftermath of the war very much informed Magnum, especially in its early days, and many of the shots included here come from that immediate post-war period.

refugees(Henri Cartier-Bresson, Deported Russians leaving Germany for home, 1945)

They show the wreckage of Europe, described as being ’empty, quiet and it stank’. The word ‘peace’ had a hollow ring for many of the Magnum photojournalists; apart from anything else, the war in Indochina kicked in in 1946, and the reality of a Europe with 30 million refugees was never far away. Hindsight gives a terrible reality to images like the one above – what awaited the refugees there was not known when it was taken, of course, though many people suspected the worst. IMG_7411

Others do not need hindsight; the traumatised child photographed by David Seymour in Poland in 1948 – the title is ‘disturbed orphan drawing her home’ – is powerful enough. You don’t need to know what this girl has been through in any detail (probably just as well) in order for the image to have a powerful impact; it bears witness all by itself.

If there is any one theme that runs throughout this book, it is people. People, their strength, their resilience, even though they might be ‘swept along on the winds of history’. And of course not all the photographs are of war; as time goes on there are portraits of famous people, shots of artists (Picasso, Matisse, Giaciometti), writers (Colette – and her maid – or Francoise Sagan or Simone de Beauvoir), singers and actors (Jaques Tati, Maria Callas).

HCBFor me, though, it’s the ‘ordinary’ people, the prostitutes working in 1947 Essen (David Seymour); the women chatting in Paris (Werner Bischoff, Ernst Haas) or coralling children in Naples (David Seymour) or  being chatted up by British troops in Berlin in 1945 (Robert Capa). The dignity of everyday, ‘normal’ human beings is expressed in shot after shot, such as this one by Henri Cartier-Bresson of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, taken – amazingly – in 1951.

So when does ‘post-war’ end? The photographers had different answers. For Ernst Haas, it was the early 1950s when he began taking his famous colour shots. For Inge Morath, it was the day in 1959 when she was unable to park her car in Paris because there were too many others using the available spaces. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it as the 1958 Brussels World Fair, which he shot and where he ‘scented hope’ – but, he said, he felt wary because he thought photography was a way of feeling a pulse, of sensing things in advance, of metaphorically sniffing the smoke in the air which becomes a blazing fire. He went on to say ‘…the world had been totally changed by scientific discoveries made during the war. These technological changes became a part of our lives, creating deeper and deeper tensions so that we are in a world that seems headed for suicide.’ Prescient, or what?

One final note: this is a beautifully edited book (says moi, ever the editor). Time and again photographs are shown in parallel, but in an understated way that informs and doesn’t distract. Take this pair,

men at work

by Werner Bischoff (London, 1950) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Tancarville, France, 1955). Understated symmetry.

Boy, am I glad I saved up my pennies and didn’t spend them all on beer.

Glorious pictures – but there has to be a ‘but’…

TEXTILES: A WORLD TOUR – Discovering Traditional Fabrics and Patterns, by Catherine Legrande, published in 2008

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 18

coverThere are some books which have been lurking in my collection for a while, and yet I’ve barely looked at them. No, let me correct myself: this tendency is largely confined to the illustrated books, where I’ve looked at the pictures but either ignored the text or just skimmed through it. In some cases, as I’ve mentioned before, this has definitely been a mistake. Reading the text has given me a lot and added to the power of the illustrations.

In other cases – nah. Unfortunately, this book is one of these.

Textiles: A World Tour is also badly titled, because this isn’t a world tour. It’s selective and can be extremely sketchy, even when it does consider an area. Yes, it covers some diverse parts of the world – Laos, Romania, Rajisthan, Guatemala – but it is by no means as global as the title implies. And though there may be something on the textiles of somewhere specific which interests you, that something will probably be confined to two double-page spreads.

However, it is also inspirational – if you concentrate on the illustrations.

inside1

There is much to enjoy, and I’ll extend my positive feedback to the image captions, as well, which are often excellent. Nor, unlike some books on this subject, is male dress ignored (that would be next to impossible, you might think, when looking at places like Rajisthan or Romania, but it has happened before in books of this type).

inside 2

I find the mix of photographs and illustrations compelling. After all, a costume illustration can reveal details of construction which a photograph cannot, and they are vital in any serious book. They are good here, and the captions often help you understand what is going on.

The shots of details are superb, whether they are of Indian embroidery or Romanian printing, and there are some lovely montages, like this one of South-East Asian traditional bags.

inside3

Perhaps I’ve been too tough on the text. It’s also acceptable where it concentrates on the textiles and dumps the ‘we saw X going to market and she said…’ gubbins. This book doesn’t go into anything in detail, though – if you want to serious information about, say, ikats or indigo, then you’re better going to a more specialist work. If you want lovely photographs and excellent drawings, you’ll get those here.

inside4So, yes, I would recommend this, and I have enjoyed getting into it – perhaps you need that grit in your oyster. Ignore what it pretends to be (especially wise in the sections of text that read like a 1950s National Geographic travelog; this tone may be partly down to translation) and concentrate on what it is, and you have something worthwhile: a collection of gorgeous photographs and illustrations of traditional textiles from some parts of the world.

What’s ‘hooray’ in Finnish – or Swedish, come to that?

MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER, by Tove Jansson, published in English translation in 1958, my (extremely tatty and yellowing) edition 1977

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 10

coverWhat are the odds of getting two appropriately wintry books in succession? I guess that’s the point about rolling the dice and picking a book – it is truly random. Actually, I think I’d have preferred Comet in Moominland when it comes to the stories of Moomintroll and his friends, but let’s not quibble: this is wonderful. And it’s frosty outside and we are thundering towards the solstice – “‘But that’s exactly why we burn up the great winter bonfire tonight,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You’ll get your sun back tomorrow.'” – and this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For adults and children both; I’m as enchanted by it now as I was when I was six. There’s only one downside to Moominland Midwinter as far as I’m concerned: the almost complete absence of my hero and role model, Snufkin (aka Aragorn, in his Strider persona?).

I’m not sure why the Moomins and their friends have exerted such a strong pull on me over the years, as they have on many other people. They’re undeniably attractive to small children (and bigger ones, even if you do end up identifying with Snufkin, a wanderer and adventurer, rather than the cutely rotund and domesticated moomins). The stories are good, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

wood

They’re atmospheric (here are people bringing torches to the midwinter fire), and the larger, more elaborate ones have a wealth of detail which used to fascinate me. Er, still does fascinate me. For me, they sit perfectly with the text, the ideal of children’s book illustration. A little, in fact, like Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations in the previous post.

But what of the plot? What of the story, the essence?

oooooWell, this book has been described, just a little pompously, as ‘having greater psychological depth’ than the earlier books in the series – I’m not so sure about that, though maybe once I stop laughing I’ll agree (I don’t have a lot of patience with over-academic analysis these days). Moominland Midwinter opens when Moomintroll wakes up when he should be hibernating, safely tucked up in bed with his tummy full of pine needles. No-one else is awake, and he is suddenly in a strange and alien land, where even the most familiar things are strangely different. The moominhouse is covered with snow, the sky is black and – when he goes exploring – the sea is frozen. He is terribly lonely, but gradually discovers that this different world has interesting inhabitants, notably Too-ticky, who has taken up residence in the family bathing-house

walk

which she shares with some invisible shrews and a mystery resident… and soon others come to the fore. Little My, for instance, an old friend, has also woken and crashes into him as she sledges downhill on a silver tray:

‘Little My!’ cried Moomintroll once again. ‘Oh, you can’t even guess… it’s been so strange, so lonely… Remember last summer when…?’
‘But now it’s winter,’ said Little My, and fished for the silver tray in the snow. ‘We took a good jump, didn’t we?’

fireGradually, through the coming of the Great Cold, the lighting of the Midwinter Fire and the arrival of many refugees from the consequences of the cold (who are welcomed, camp in the moominhouse and eat all the stored jam), Moomintroll becomes more and more at home in his winter world. But it’s not just about Moomintroll conquering his homesickness for the summer. There are many other little touches. There’s Salome the Little Creep, one of the refugees, who has taken up residence in a Merschaum tram, and her unrequited passion for the hideously sporty Hemulen (Moomintroll describes him to Too-ticky: ‘He’s going to live in an igloo, and at this moment he’s bathing in the river.’ ‘Oh, that kind of Hemulen,’ says Too-ticky, and we all know exactly what she means even though we may never have met a Hemulen). There’s Sorry-oo, the little dog in his hat and blanket who’d really like to be a wolf until he encounters the real thing; there’s the Squirrel with the Wonderful Tail, there’s the Groke… Hmm, maybe we’ll leave it at the Groke.

And above all, there’s winter:

cold...

Poor Tove Jansson, though (she was part of Finland’s Swedish-speaking community, by the way; hence the post’s title – knew I’d forgotten something!). There was a lot more to her and her work than the delightful family of small trolls she created, but they did tend to take over due to their immense popularity (her Summer Book is another wonderful read, and there isn’t a hint of a moomin). It’s difficult, though. Unless you are someone like Tolkien, who lived and breathed his world so completely, an incredibly popular character or range of characters is bound to assume greater importance than your other work, at least in your readers’ minds. And as a footnote I’d just like to raise another Tolkien comparison: the importance of the landscape and the natural world. Moominland is fully realised; the trees and – my goodness, they both have Lonely Mountains. Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Tolkien and Jansson were great lovers of the north… now, where’s the snow?

Almost good timing – Christmas with Dylan Thomas

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone; this illustrated edition originally published in 1978

Bookcase 9, shelf 2, book 3

The book-selecting dice are evidently not quite running on the same calendar as me, but I am very glad I got this in November and not, say, June – that would have been completely wrong. This nostalgic, romantic, poetic and occasionally deeply surreal evocation of Christmas past would have been impossible to read in warmth and sunshine, but snuggle up next to the stove on a dark night – perfect. And that’s even if I can’t read anything by Dylan Thomas without hearing Richard Burton’s voice in the background at the same time. Or my own – it’s a wonderful book to read aloud.

There is a sort of narrative to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, taking readers through memories of the Christmas season, starting with one of the most evocative opening passages I can think of:

One Christmas was very much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It moves from ‘the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve’ with Thomas (or his narrator, perhaps that should be) in Mrs Prothero’s garden waiting for cats – (‘It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.’) – being diverted by Mrs P frantically calling ‘fire’,

to him going to bed on Christmas night:’I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’

Ardizzone’s illustrations run throughout my childhood like a thread, as does this book – despite my growing up 250 miles from the nearest part of Wales; my father adored Dylan Thomas – and it’s such a perfect combination. The frantic Mrs P, the boys and the cats: they’re just right. It’s tempting to see Ardizzone as a literal ‘translator’ and so he is, but his versions of the time of Thomas’s childhood – ‘when there were wolves in Wales’ and the boys ‘chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears’ – are equally literal:

The use of language is, as you’d expect, absolutely magical. It’s impossible to describe; it has to be quoted:

‘Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss…’

The year before last, we had heavy snow right over Christmas, even here on the west coast of Wales where we normally get very little. As I forced my way out of the house and up the hill, trudging through the woods, I thought of this so clearly. I’d have liked to declaim it to the few sheep I passed, but I couldn’t remember it well enough (sheep are such sticklers for poetic accuracy – oh dear, I think it’s catching).

More realistically, I love the family get-together (brought hilariously and touchingly up-to-date by Mark Watson in the 2009 BBC film ‘A Child’s Christmases in Wales’), the aunts and uncles – ‘There are always Uncles at Christmas’ – around the fire:

This book is frequently described as a ‘modern classic’, and so it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a delightful read, an amusing, diverting journey into the past, into Christmas family traditions and foibles (‘Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year’), into a partly imaginary but completely believable poetic world. There’s even a possible ghost. What else can I say but a rather early Nadolig Llawen?

Of course, the classic version of this book is read aloud not by Richard Burton but by Dylan Thomas himself; it’s worth digging it out. And if you’re inspired to find this lovely illustrated edition, be aware that there is a minature version about; delightful but impractical. You need to see the deacon’s jawbone and the bishops in the belfrey. Didn’t I mention them?

Back to the trees

MYTHIC WOODS by Jonathan Roberts, published in 2004

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 17

I do love trees. I spent a large part of my teenage years up in an old tree, reading. Now I’ve got quite a few in the garden (er, 20 at the last count, though they’re not all huge), and more than a few books about them on the shelves. Some are field guides, some focus on a particular tree, some are tours of specific trees – but this is the only one which focuses on woods. Well, on a perhaps surprising interpretation of ‘woods’.

OK, I admit it, I’m a sucker for books on trees. Some of the books I’ve bought on impulse and the strength of  a few positive words on Amazon have made their way to the charity shop fairly quickly, and for a moment this one nearly joined them. I’m not quite sure why, but it found its way back onto the shelves, where it remained unexamined until I rolled the dice and got it. Now I have read it and looked at it properly, I’m very glad that I changed my mind. This dice-rolling thing is having all sorts of unexpected benefits…

One reason why I nearly got rid of Mythic Woods was because of the fact that it is illustrated with what are, essentially, library shots. I’d hoped for a unified vision, and rather snottily decided that this wasn’t it. I was wrong. Yes, the photographs do come from a variety of photographers, but the photo editing is excellent, and there isn’t really a sour note.

I do think, though, that the title is misleading as well as being a little ‘away with the fairies’ with the ‘mythic’ tag. If it was full of legendary woods, woods like Sherwood, perhaps, redolent with stories and tales, then I wouldn’t have much of  a problem with it as an echo of the book within. But this book isn’t like that at all; it’s much more down to earth than the title implies. It’s also about forests than woods, and that’s forests in the old sense of the term – where a forest can be a bleak area of upland with a few trees dotting the hills, as in the Atlas Mountains,

or an ancient petrified / fossilized forest in Arizona, or a wilderness of kelp off the California coast. Oh, I know I’m quibbling, but I am an editor and that’s my job. Time to ignore my inner nit-picker and just enjoy the book, because it is eminently enjoyable. Here’s the kelp:

More conventionally, the book moves across the whole world in a way that some books of this type just do not. It includes, for instance, Canada’s Great Bear Forest (boy, would I like to see that some day) and the Kauri forests of New Zealand (ditto). I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the mix of photographic sources: it would have been extremely expensive as well as time-consuming – hang on, the Inner Editor is out again. Go away.

But of course it’s not just about the photographs. The text is good, even if the font size is suspiciously large (a sure sign of trying to spin text out – go away, Inner Ed, I said). There’s a strong environmental message. This wasn’t, however, what Jonathan Roberts originally intended. He is quite open about it: saying that the green agenda wasn’t what he wanted to focus on at the start. However, as work progressed, that attitude became impossible to sustain. The sound of the chainsaw rang through many of the woods he visited, and there were clear signs of destruction caused by logging (napalm has even been used to clear the ground after the removal of trees, so that’s not surprising). As he says:

‘Trees can barely keep up with axes. With chainsaws they do no stand a chance. A thousand years a-growing destroyed by fifteen minutes with a chainsaw.’

There’s also a focus on those who have fought or are fighting for the forests, people like Lyautey with his aim of re-foresting the Atlas Mountains in Morocco just after the First World War. His civil servants had protested that old-growth forest, such as that which had once covered the Atlas, would take thousands of years to establish. Re-establish. Apparently he responded with ‘That, gentelmen, is why we will start immediately’. Quite. Go out and plant trees – though I, perhaps, should stop. At least in my own garden.

But I really, really warmed to this book when I found a quote from an old, completely inspirational archaeology book, one that turned me on to the whole idea of European archaeology in the late 70s, and provoked my deep and abiding obsession with the Mesolithic.

It’s probably too small or faint to see, certainly on a mobile device, so here goes:

“‘If one could have flown,’ wrote J G Clark in 1952, ‘over northern Europe during Mesolithic times [c 5000 BCE] it is doubtful whether more than an occasional wisp of smoke from some camp fire, or maybe a small cluster of huts or shelters by a river bank or old lake bed would have advertised the presence of man: in all essentials the forest would have stretched unbroken, save only by mountain, swamp and water, the the margins of the sea…'”

Hmm. Maybe ‘mythic’ isn’t that bad a word. The forest here, by the way, is the wonderful Black Wood of Rannoch. Now that one I do know.

Forgotten – New York

FRONTIER NEW YORK, by Jan Staller, published in 1988

Bookcase 7, Shelf 3, book 25

This whole ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise is fascinating. I think I’d got used to looking at particular bookshelves, or picking up books on a single subject – travel, say, or history (I’ve got lots of both, which is why they keep coming up). Basically, I’d got lazy. Intellectually lazy, and maybe physically lazy too, because there’s no denying that the shelves that are easy to reach undoubtedly get the most attention.

But the throw of the dice made me stand on the back of the sofa, hand on one shelf to make sure I didn’t fall down the gap behind,  stretch out – and pull out a book I’d forgotten I owned. And it’s wonderful! Since I hauled Frontier New York out from between two larger, beefier, altogether heavier photography books I’ve been carrying it around with me, urging people to have a look at it. Surprised the postman, anyway.

I can’t claim credit for having discovered FNY. That belongs to my photography tutor from my City and Guilds in the 1990s, who pointed me in the right direction. I was working on a project which involved getting up at about 4 a.m. and being in run-down, ex-industrial areas by the Thames as dawn broke. I was working in black and white, but Gus suggested I look at Staller’s work, and I found the book in the old Photographer’s Gallery bookshop. Isn’t it strange, the way you suddenly remember little, specific things like that so very clearly, even though you’d not thought about them for years?

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, because I fell in instantly love with Staller’s images…

Boy, oh boy, oh boy. And now I’ve fallen in love all over again.

Staller wasn’t a huge fan of New York, though he moved there in 1976. But, by exploring and investigating, he found a different city, found what he describes as ‘many pockets in and around New York that are relatively unused and ignored’. In his brief introduction, he adds that as life had almost withdrawn from these locations, they had become ‘a neglected frontier abutting the functional metropolis’. What he means is made quite clear in his shots of the abandoned West Side Highway (left above and below), awaiting demolition,

and the strange, often dreamy, images of the edges of the Hudson River.

The shots of and from the old West Side Highway are amazing. Staller apparently ‘discovered’ the location while looking for somewhere quieter, more withdrawn, less frantic. What he found was somewhere that was all that, but which also gave him ‘unblocked sunlight, an open horizon, and all varieties of weather’.

Beautiful. Well, I think they are anyway. My own New York was quite different – as a visitor, albeit a working visitor, in the 90s, I knew frantic energy and life. I hardly stopped to appreciate colours, or the forms of buildings, or the typeface of an old ad on the side of a building, or the reflections in a large puddle. Wish I’d known this book then; it would have given me quite a different perspective.

There’s much more than a heap of gorgeous shots of the West Side Highway, though. In other places Staller created his own frontiers, notably by being out and about very early or in weather conditions that are best described as ‘challenging’ – like the shots he took during the night of the 1983 blizzard. They are, quite simply, magical. My own personal favourite is one of traffic lights, colour blurred in a hazy, snowy, almost-monochrome-but-slightly-indigo vision. Sigh.

In other shots the city is dystopian, a John Carpenter vision of Manhattan.

But again there’s this sense of frontier, here almost of a stage or film set (or maybe I’ve just seen Escape from New York too recently). It doesn’t matter how conventionally unappealing the subject matter, either; the colours are still terrific. Love that electric blue.

So how did he achieve these shots, technically? Well, he used existing light sources, so exposure times for his signature twilight or night images could be as long as 8 minutes. In addition, the nature of the light source in those shots – incandescent, sodium vapour, whatever – added an unexpected element. He was using Vericolor L Colour neg film, and colour film is not formulated for these lights, so the colours are rendered differently, are altered, unearthly and intense. I’ll say.

I’ll leave the last word on this book (almost) to Jan Staller: ‘…I find the atmosphere to be rich in mystery, reminiscent of a lost city’. Yup, me too.

Staller is still working in interesting ways. It’s worth checking out his website to see what he’s up to – and there are more shots from the fabulous Frontier New York there, too.

What’s left of Londoners

LONDON BODIES – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day, Museum of London, 1998

Bookcase 9, shelf 4, book 6

I am surprised that this is the first exhibition catalogue the dice have presented me with, given that I used to work in museums and galleries, and have an incurable catalogue habit (well, I’ve cured myself of it now – largely, OK, I’m cured for this year).

It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of exhibition publishing – possibly not of general interest, ho ho – and it also sent me to my other shelves, pulling out old catalogues, new catalogues, big catalogues, catalogues that set themselves up to become the definitive work on X or Y, catalogues that are little more than a flyer… What are exhibition catalogues for, when it comes down to it?

I can only answer for myself. I find that unless I visit an exhibition several times – and that’s been known, quite apart from the time I effectively lived with exhibitions every day – I later forget about things I would prefer to remember. And I miss things, especially at blockbusters where seeing anything through other people is next to impossible. The enormous tomes are also useful reference books, though they do break your back and lead to other problems: I had a nasty fight with an Air France steward about Le Siecle de Titien being too heavy to go in an overhead locker. Or even fly. She did have a point.

This, happily, is not such a breezeblock of a book, nor is it a straightforward list of everything that was in the Museum of London’s fascinating 1998 archaeological and historical show. The show was based around their extensive collection of human remains, but it was more than that – they have equally extensive collections of all sorts of other things connected to physical appearance, from Roman leather knickers and an Elizabethan child’s knitted vest to Victorian underwear. Unsurprisingly, London Bodies is one of those discursive catalogues, rather than one which details the exhibits one by one and then tells you something about them.

There are seven chapters on various aspects of the show, starting with one on excavation, and then moving chronologically through to a photo-essay on modern London (superfluous, in my opinion). However, because the chapters are all written by different people there is little unity of tone; one chapter is a bit dry, another chatty…

But having said that, there’s still plenty to chew on. Each chapter throws a light on a specific aspect of the time it discusses – the Black Death and famine in the Medieval chapter; costume in the one on Tudor London; the question of a ‘London look’ in the one on the Georgian and Victorian city. In addition there are feature spreads covering all sorts of subjects from recent work in Roman cemeteries and what it tells us about Londoners (most people ate comparatively well, and only a small proportion show evidence of deprivation, or of parasites) to what made you sexy in Elizabethan London (minute waists and large cod-pieces). So inside this particular exhibition catalogue is a wealth of interesting information.

Human remains – and what you do with them – are a controversial subject in archaeology, and this is little explored, but I recall the the show as being both fascinating and comparatively sensitive in the way it dealt with the issue. The book is quite clear – the remains are valued for the information they can give, and they give a lot. This woman, for instance, was a Saxon. She was about 30 when she died (of what, we do not know), and was buried dressed in an overgown fastened at the shoulder by a brooch. The brooch is still there, but we also know that she wore a bracelet – her wrist bones are stained by the metal – and that she had a congenital back disorder, had once broken her collar bone but been treated well since the mend was good, and that she had enjoyed quite a bit of sweetness in her diet (bad teeth – the sweetness could have been from beer or honey). At the same time, I am sure that more attention would be paid to the ethical side of displaying human remains were the book (and the exhibition) to take place today. I know where I stand – I trained as an archaeologist, after all.

On a less profound level, one of the things I recall most clearly from the show was the corsets, and of course they are reflected in the catalogue. I know quite a bit about Victorian dress, but I found things here to inform me further, and amuse me (like one corset manufacturer in Berners Street, who won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition – the wonderfully and apparently anachronistically named Madame Roxy Caplin). Oh, by the way, her corsets were ‘beneficial to the weak, delicate and imperfect’. Just about everyone, then.

I have really enjoyed revisiting this catalogue and, through it, remembering the show. Not all are so interesting, of course, and I’m not sure this could properly be described as a ‘catalogue’ anyway – it’s more a ‘book to accompany the exhibition’. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it’s time to pull out a few more and renew my acquaintance with Ancient Greek gold, the effects of light on fabric or Russian Constructivism. Sigh…

(Apologies for the slight hiatus in posts – not idleness, an exotic holiday or a sudden weakening of resolve on the book-buying front. More mundane: problems with WordPress…)