Thursday, 18 November 2010

In Which I Meet Some Bookbinding Monks

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I know I haven’t updated in a long, long time, woe is me!

I haven’t actually done anything constructive today, save read the second chapter of Reading Animals, editing a story. Other than that I have been contemplating abandon and watching Dalmatian videos on YouTube –what a tragic life of just sitting in my room doing nothing, in doing so missing the Christmas Lights being switched on by some Royal lady and getting rather depressed about it.

My reading week was predictably full of not reading (I did finish Dog Boy which I can’t wait to talk about in class) hastily fixed Nick’s book (see below) and enjoyed Chinese for my aunt’s birthday. I’ve been waiting for ages to post up pictures of those books just in case she saw it but I’m really proud of them, especially because it’s a style I don’t usually go for. Oh and I printed labels for The Green Fairy Book, looks a little corny but never mind.

Oh when my brother was home we looked up the stuff that was on the spine of The Language of Flowers and it comes from a book of Napoleon’s life, written in the 1850’s, which dates Flowers back to that time, too. This is a seriously old book; it makes me ‘squee’ in excitement. As for Coleridge, we couldn’t quite interpret the spine, only that it was a series of letters, one addressed to the ‘Post Master General’ and another concerning a hospital patient, or something, maybe from a newspaper?

But the main news of the week (which I disclosed in the four postcards I sent out) was that my aunt (Sam) had hooked me up with some bookbinding monks of Quarr Abbey. So here is my account of that marvellous visit. I regret that I did not take any photos, but I have found a few online. 

“Are you religious at all?” Chris, the man who had arranged the meeting, asked me. I bit my lip and I wasn’t exactly sure what to say. Dare I say anything with the daunting red bricked Abbey behind me, a house of God, which would be ultimately blasphemous? I stared at Sam for some kind of support. 

     “It’s okay, you don’t have to be,” Chris said. I breathed a sigh of relief. When it comes to religion I can claim that I have been Christened but I don’t necessarily believe in the whole thing. In a way I am kind of God-fearing, Hell seems like a scary place. I dislike how religion can be  so  imposing. I have a huge amount of respect for my religious friends, I am almost jealous in a way of how much faith they can place in one thing, and they are the some of the best people I know. Anyway.

     “I would describe myself as a ‘lapsed’ Catholic,” Chris said. “I did all the stuff I needed to do for Him to let me in when I was at school,” he said proudly. We talked about some other trivialities whilst we waited in the car (the Monks were having a meeting). When we got out of the car I was both nervous and excited. I had never met a Monk before, what would it be like? And this would be the first time I’ve been in a bindery that’s bigger than a front room, too.

      We walked around the Abbey to the back. The bindery faces the Solent and on a clear day like that day you could see right over to Portsmouth and the Spinnaker Tower. It was beautiful. The bindery itself is almost a corridor at the back of the Abbey. It has huge, arched windows letting in a tremendous amount of light and inside the arches are repeated in the architecture (a common feature of the Abbey). We were greeted at the bindery door by Father Nicholas Spencer, who had been at the Abbey for something like thirty years. He greeted us with such kindness and warmth that it was just lovely. We then met Brother Blaine, a bumbly Monk who loves to make tiny ‘bespoke’ boxes big enough ‘to fit your nose stud in’.

     As we stepped through the door, immediately to our left were rolls and rolls of book cloth and buckram and leather, and I melted at the sight of it all. Father Nicholas briefly explained to us about the book cloth, which is ordered in from mainland suppliers. He pointed us to a guillotine. It wasn’t your average slicing blade, oh no, it was a modern distortion fitted into a plastic grey box, for health and safety reasons.

     “Health and safety insist we use this,” Father Nicholas said. “But we still use the old one, and if they ever ask, I just stay quiet about it!” (Bear in mind that the old guillotine does not meet health and safety standards, it’s a huge blade mounted on a table from France, quite a few centuries old)
      I was still unsure how to act with the Monks. Should I be careful of my words, with my hands behind my back, not asking too pertinent questions? Sam was still being herself so that persuaded me to relax a little bit more. I observed that Monks are actually quite grubby (several stains on their robes) and they put their hands in their pockets, so I put my hands in mine. In the morning I had been deliberating what to wear. I considered wearing a hoody, but wondered if this would be too casual, but then I remembered the Monks wore ‘hoodies’ anyway.
The bindery seemed to be set out in a way that made it perfect for giving tours. All the heavy bookbinding equipment was tucked into the walls, as well as some shelving and a cupboard full of papers. Father Nicholas showed my mother and I around the big machinery, explaining their use, and where they had come from. They had obtained quite a few bits from France, as I mentioned earlier, but also from the old County Press. In the centre of the long room (long and narrow, like I said, much like a corridor) were several work benches with on-going books, and also some frames set up. The bindery mainly deals with in-house binding, as books are handled in the Abbey at least five times a day, and so are subject to considerable wear, (not to mention they are quite old). I tried to display my knowledge. “Ah, a bone press!” I said. Father Nicholas quickly corrected me (“A bone folder,”) and scoffed when I said, “I use a teaspoon instead!”

     During our tour Father Nicholas was quick to lay out what he considered was ‘proper’ bookbinding. He basically condemned any ‘binding’ that wasn’t done with the correct materials all equipment. I was quite glad I hadn’t brought any of my books with me, least he scoff at it. While this was happening Sam had gone off with Brother Blaine, and as he was younger, he seemed much more enthusiastic than Father Nicholas. I caught glimmers of their interesting conversation, it seemed much more interesting than what was being said to mum and I. 

During the tour I got to handle some amazing things, including hand marbled paper (“A lot of this is no good, we should really throw it away,” to which I thought, “No give it to me!”) placing my hands precariously on a great handle, touching tiny letters used for making titles, seeing the incredibly delicate gold leaf, and these amazing bound books that the Monks had made previously. They proudly fetched them from a tall cupboard at the back of the bindery. There were A3 books so delicately crafted. The covers were made from leather but some of them had at least three different types and colours of leather I marvelled at how such a skill might be applied, Father Nicholas explained the process of making etches into the ‘base’ leather and then moulding the two types together. I got to touch a piece of sheep’s leather, which is apparently incredibly hard to work with, as it is the only other skin, apart from humans, that has seven layers. A bookbinder I had met before had given me a square scrap of leather but alas no such gifts came from this bindery. Brother Blaine showed us his tiny bespoke boxes made with beautiful papers that he was so proud of, in preparation for the Christmas sale that is held annually, unfortunately I will miss it. There was a display board of the Quarr Abbey Bindery including pictures and a poster for a day exploring the bindery, which happened a few years ago. I told them they should hold another such session. 

    Brother Blaine placed down a grand green box in front of us, and we huddled excitedly to see it. Inside it was lined with green velvet and sitting cushioned was a black leather book. Brother Blaine explained to us it was a copy for a client of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. “Well, Mr Wilde was a very eccentric man, so I wanted to do something to mimic that,” Brother Blaine said, and as he pulled the book out of the box we saw that he had meticulously crafted a leather hangman’s noose on the front cover.

     We made signs of leaving but the Monks seemed to like to talk. They clearly love their art and admitted that they could probably spend hours and hours in the bindery if they could, as well as talk about books all day. They had a shelf dedicated to books on bookbinding; I noted proudly that I had one of the books they had. They showed us a book of an immaculate craftsman whose name I’ve quite forgotten. Apparently his employers were obliged to give him a job in the bindery and he sat in the basement doing leather proofing for years. They never really minded (or noticed) what he was doing so he could do as much as he liked and he effectively became a master in that area. He produced hundreds of stunning books that were actually quite different from the norm. “The art has to develop,” Father Nicholas remarked, “Otherwise that chap would have been sitting in the basement doing the same thing over and over again,”
      When we finally did pull away I admonished them with my thanks at the amazing experience. As we left Sam suggested that we take a look into the Crypt, which was still open. She can remember when the Crypt was quite derelict before. It was quite a profound place, with an alter and low soft lights, the stunning architecture of the Abbey showing through. I can understand why people say Quarr is ‘ugly’ however – the walls are made from red brick and in a way are quite imposing. It turns out that my great grandfather was a bricky at the time the Abbey was built, and he sent postcards home whilst courting my great grandmother explaining he ‘would be back tomorrow’ and the like. The Crypt was a spiritual place indeed. (The photo is not actually the Crypt itself but it gives an idea of it)

As Father Nicholas walked us the car park he made a last bid to win us over religion wise. He explained that he had taken school trips from the mainland around the Abbey and some of the children were so ignorant as to say, ‘why do you believe in a swear word?’ at this information I was actually quite shocked. I felt incredibly lucky to be brought up the way I was. 

     We got back into the car after saying another hundred ‘thankyous’. I was absolutely buzzing. It had been an incredible experience. The Monks hadn’t been as stiff of back as I thought they would be, in fact, they were actually quite relaxed. As Father Nicholas said, they ‘lived a simple life’ but it was a life that in a way I craved for – no fuss over relationships and small trivialities. They greeted each other so warmly, so grandly, (“Salutations, Brother!”) and they spoke in a gentle, almost archaic way. It threw me a bit when we briefly met a Monk who said to Chris “I’ll send an email about it,” the word ‘email’ seemed so alien and strange among the grand arches and high windows. But I had noticed that the bindery was littered with printed material from the internet and emails. On discussing this point with mum and Sam later in the car, Sam said that if they did not keep up, or adapt, or evolve, with what was going on, it was likely that the Abbey would have to be closed down. It was, I reflected, like the man in the basement who worked so hard to make an imprint into the way we make books. Without that important step, the amazing craft I adore so much would crumble into history, like the bindery and the Abbey if they did not catch the current. It would be a shame, because it is a wonderful, inspiring place.

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