Tuesday 12 November 2019

The Dream I Held in My Hands

By Karen Argent

In October 2017 The Letterpress Project, a not-for-profit initiative that promotes the importance of the printed book, lost one of its founder members, the wonderful Jane Slowey. She died from a disease that she had fought off once but couldn’t keep at bay a second time, and she died far too young. 

As she had always brought her keen enthusiasm and skills to the project, we wanted to publish a tribute to Jane’s ability to inspire those she met. We asked people to honour her memory by thinking about which books had inspired their imaginations – and the response was exceptional. The result was an anthology of short pieces about reading called The Dream I Held in My Hands: Dedicated to the Memory of Jane Slowey.

The beautifully illustrated book is available as a free pdf from The Letterpress Project website here, and is also available as a limited printed publication by request. Please contact karen [dot] argent [at] btinternet [dot] com for further details.

Below you can read one of the essays from the book. 

An Enchantment: The Book That Made Me a Reader
By Leila Rasheed

I still have the book. I hold it in my forty-year-old hand, and the ghost of my seven-year-old hand holds it too: an enchantment, like those padlocks on bridges that mean two lovers clasp each other, hand in hand, forever. In 1980s Benghazi, where I grew up, there were no shops, or very few – a baker, a butcher, the souk, and one vast, concrete department store that had nothing inside it but a sack of flour, leaking and weevil-ridden on a pallet. Libya had its own enchantments, curses and hauntings, but for books we had to migrate. I would guess we bought this particular book at Galt or Early Learning, during one of our summer journeys back to England.

I’ll put it down here, so you can see it properly. The first thing you’ll note is the fragility. The pages are weathered yellow, and it comes in chunks, this book; sections splitting off from an osteoporotic spine from which the glue has long ago perished. The spine has been Sellotaped and re-Sellotaped until the tape shatters at the touch. Love spells sometimes look like this: like a padlock on a bridge, or an unskilled repair. Spells to keep things, like people, from coming apart. 

With a title like The Puffin Book of Magic Verse, you would expect a dark cover. But the cover is nothing as obvious as black. It’s deep purple, the colour of a Libyan-grown aubergine, burnished by a diet of sun. And now the other magic flickers into life, the magic fire of illustrations. This book may have made me a reader, but it was never just the words that did that. Look at the head on the cover. It must belong to a child, but what a child! The offspring of the Medusa and the Green Man - hair bristling thick with leaves, owls, cats, witches. Genderless, the face doesn’t look directly at the reader, but off to one side. The child’s eyes and mouth are a little open, not in glee or rage, but in wonder. As if it has just seen something astonishing - and this, mark you, when it, itself, is the strangest thing that any reader could ever have seen. From the very cover, the book isn’t inviting you to read it. It isn’t daring you to read it. Like the master magician’s spell book, it is just there, and you reading it or not is a matter of indifference to it. What child wouldn’t open a book on these tempting terms? What are you looking at? Can I come with you? 

Open the book, then, and step in. Immediately you are falling into poems, like Alice down the rabbit hole, woozy, twisting, slow and dreamlike. When you find your feet, the floor staggers, tilts you forward. The whole book is on the slant. It leads you onwards, draws you in, down long galleries of verse, past images that shine like stained glass windows. Through section after section; doors in a house haunted by poetry: Charms, Ghosts and Hauntings, Curses, and Changelings. Poem after poem enchants, provokes, intrigues, just like the shy, uncanny creatures on the cover that crept for protection into the accepting, warm and non-judgemental wild mind of a child.

Poetry, like lightning, isn’t meant to be grounded, but an anthology like this can act as a conductor. A stroll through the index of first lines demonstrates the range of poems included, from rattling, runaway comic verse - The Resident Djinn" and Colonel Fazackerly Butterworth Toast are two characters that will stay with me forever - to this tiny, unforgettable gem (translated from a Native American language, and presented, as was sadly common at the time of publication, without context) in the voice of a ghost:

          My friend
          this is a wide world we are travelling over
          walking on the moonlight

What all these poems, regardless of form or origin, have in common is that they describe, evoke or embody the mysterious and wonderful. This is a collection that honours the strange, that is wide and unwavering of gaze. Perhaps it could only have been produced in the 1970s, and by a poet of genius – Charles Causley - who was unafraid of childhood.

When we finally closed the wardrobe door on Libya, we gave away most of our toys and packed all our favourite books in our two suitcases. At that time, due to the political situation, there were no direct flights from Libya to the UK. We landed in Malta and changed to another airline. When we took off from Malta, most of our suitcases stayed where they were, with the books inside them. I arrived in Birmingham scattered; trailing words, like feathers, across the wide blue Mediterranean. My books, gone: my world, gone. I would spend a lifetime trying to find that lost world again, seeking pieces of my childhood like Isis looking for her love, through second-hand bookshops and later, online. The Puffin Book of Magic Verse was in the one suitcase that survived the journey.

It’s hard to know, if the rest of my books had made it through, whether The Puffin Book of Magic Verse would have been so important to me. Perhaps I would have taken the presence of books for granted. As it stands, it is one of the very few things – books or otherwise - I have from my childhood. It haunts me.

When I was young, I used to like to imagine that I would be buried with my books, so we’d biodegrade together, and archaeologists of the future wouldn’t be able to tell the ink from the flesh. Now I’m older, I think that’s a bit morbid, and I know how much burial plots cost. All the same, those pages are yellow with my handling. I have put myself into that book just as it has put itself into me. Bridges and love spells may rust and crumble, but a book can go all the way with you, holding your hand. 

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