Q: When is a biography not a biography? A: When it is an exquisite memoir about researching and writing a biography.
Englishman John Craske was a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid. He was born in 1881 and in 1917, when he had just turned thirty-six, he fell seriously ill. For the rest of his life he kept moving in and out of what was described as a stuporous state.
This state could be so extreme that he was hardly aware of his own existence for months on end, but it could also be more on the surface, which meant he had no real energy in his body but could still talk softly and quietly and could do things with his hands. There were better times when he could get up and walk about, although as he grew older the better times became increasingly rare.
In 1923, or thereabouts, he started making paintings of the sea and boats on the sea and the coastline seen from the sea. And later, when he was too ill to stand and paint, he created embroideries, which he could do lying in his bed, propped up with cushions, a piece of cloth fixed to a wooden frame lying in front of him.
Craske was cared for by his devoted wife Laura, who only ever received the in sickness and for poorer parts of the marital bargain. Together the childless couple lived in poverty in various bitter stone cottages near the English coast, with Craske driven to paint on whatever was available. When he turned to embroidery his palette was necessarily limited: his wife often had to choose between buying a limited number of woollen skeins or food.
When English writer Julia Blackburn first saw Craske’s images of boats and the sea she felt them fairly thrum with life.
…they were also images of life itself and its precariousness and how we struggle to keep afloat and to stay alive in the face of fear and uncertainty. All these fragile vessels: tossed by waves and sometimes almost engulfed by them, out there in the vastness of the ocean. Some were pinpointed by the angled glare of a lighthouse like the eye of God staring straight at them, others had smoke billowing from their funnels as they tried to plough a way through a storm. I had the sense at once that it was all true: the tilt of a boat in relation to the swell of the waves and the strength of the wind; the rigging, the billowing of the sails. I remembered that Sylvia Townsend Warner had said that John Craske worked with the intensity of someone speaking under oath.
That last sentence is typical of Blackburn’s writing style. She foregrounds herself and her informers in the narrative – carefully, respectfully and beautifully – and we know what she knows, as she learns or thinks of it.
‘Craske understood the sea,’ said Emily, who has done a lot of sailing and also understands the sea. ‘He really knew how a boat sits on the water, how it moves, what the wind feels like, the smell of the waves, the danger, the isolation.’
Driven to find out more about Craske, and perhaps to find out why his works were so little known, Blackburn spends several years following in his footsteps, visiting his homes, speaking with distant relatives or friends of friends who often as not don’t even remember him.
Some of Blackburn’s research cul de sacs are fascinating. In her pursuit of nothing she was very clear about Blackburn booked herself in to spend a weekend in Yarmouth, a coastal town in Norfolk. She vividly describes the faded grandeur of the Royal Hotel, the sad Summer Palace all boarded up. She ventures into a doll shop and there speaks at length with Valerie, whose grandmother was a Russian-American heiress who was disowned when she married an Englishman performing as a clown with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Her grandfather, said Valerie, discovered Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.
‘My grandfather was a clown, but because it was hard to get work, he put people on display as well: the Only Electric Lady was his first and then there was the Skeleton Woman and the Balloon-Headed Baby. He had a booth on the Whitechapel Road in London and you paid to come in and he drew back a curtain. Joseph made contact with my grandfather because he thought he could become an exhibit, as a way of getting out of the workhouse and earning a bit of money. So my grandfather took him on … that surgeon Sir Frederick Treaves, who looked after the Elephant Man later … told lies about my grandfather, saying he was a drunkard and that he exploited the Elephant Man, which he didn’t, they were friends.
Gradually, quietly, and despite many such diversions, Blackburn builds up a moving picture of Craske and his works. That the fisherman’s son could produce such moving, true pictures of the sea should come as no surprise but Craske’s class and poverty counted against him. Blackburn explores these issues with a gentle, tender care.
The subtitle, The Delicate Life of John Craske, is a miniature reflection of the dual nature of this lovely book. John Craske, constantly and often catastrophically unwell, did indeed live a delicate life. But given that ‘a Life’ is a synonym for a biography, Threads is also very much a delicately crafted Life. Blackburn’s story of research, discovery, and quite literally following in the footsteps provides the narrative framework. As she discovers more and more, so too does the reader. And as she uses educated guesses to fill in some of the gaps in Craske’s recorded and remembered life, so too is the reader subtly encouraged to wonder about the author and her own life.
The quality of the writing is well-matched by the quality of the book. Mine is a small hard copy, with coloured photographs of Craske’s works throughout and luscious thick, glossy pages. The publisher, Jonathon Cape, has produced a beautiful artifact. I did wonder how a modern publisher could take such a risk on such a little known subject but Julia Blackburn has written six books of non-fiction, a family memoir The Three of Us which won the 2009 J.R. Ackerly Award, and two novels, The Book of Colour and The Leper’s Companion, both of which were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. Clearly then, her publisher knew she was a safe pair of hands, even if I didn’t. Now that I do know I’ll definitely be seeking out Blackburn’s other works.
To see many of Craske’s works, simply do an image search on the phrase ‘John Craske’.
Note: I’m sure I read a review of this book on one of the blogs I regularly visit, and who regularly visits me here, but I can’t remember which and I can’t for the life of me find it! If it was yours please do let me know so I can thank you properly for introducing me to this lovely work.
I am in the process of reviewing a biography (of Ernestine Hill) and it just breezes along, there is no sense at all of what evidence underlies the story. Very unsatisfactory, so your review has come along at just the right time.
Perhaps it goes to the question of trust in the author. Sometimes we need to know how they know what they know.
I love biographical quests, and this sounds like a good one – thanks for introducing it to me. Interesting question about publishers taking a risk on an unknown subject – as you say, more likely if the writer is established. But if the subject is obscure, the spotlight turns more to the writing, a welcome thing for the biographer.
You’re absolutely right – an obscure subject just won’t get the air time unless the writing is superb. Perhaps this applies equally (or even more so) to memoir. Please blog about this one if you end up reading it – I’d love to hear your insights.
What a delightful book Michelle. Weaving the personal writing quest with the subject so skilfully makes it very appealing. Thanks for sharing it!
Thanks Gail. As a sometime embroiderer myself, for me the combination of biography and stitching was irresistible. To then find it so beautifully written was a completely lovely bonus.
[…] The Delicate Life of John Craske continues to haunt me. I blogged about it here. […]