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  • Why Reading Matters

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    Not the place but the activity. Rita Carter presented a  one hour programme on BBC Four that could easily have been a series.

    This was a terrifically fudged programme. Rita Carter is an experienced science writer, with a special interest in the workings of the brain but she skirted some of the big issues, failed to come to a serious conclusion beyond confirming the validity of the programme’s big idea and let drop such solecisms as ‘the brain was designed’.

    None of these points were made by the programme:

    Some of the most interesting points were in the first half of the programme:

    • reading requires multiple brain zones, which have adapted from other functions and which continue to develop when you read
    • because of its difficult structure, reading English requires more mental effort than other languages – which may have developmental significance for the brain as a whole

    Some interesting ideas were floated but remained unsubstantiated:

    • computer games may require less empathetic involvement than reading (no hint at the wider social implication of a whole generation of adolescents now more likely to walk by on the other side)

    There was no attempt to pick up on the differences between reading a novel and reading the web, or between reading plain text or text with images, or even listening to a book being read and reading it.

    There wasn’t any sense of where UK Government policy is on the issue.

    But yes, reading books is a precious thing.

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  • Lampitt's living maps

    2863068137_055aef279a_b.jpgA worthwhile post on English Buildings drew my attention to Ronald Lampitt's illustrations in The map that came to life, a children's book first published by OUP in 1948. Elsewhere there's also a complete set of spreads and a page about Lampitt's map of an ideal city.

    The beautifully illustrated cover is slightly reminiscent of Seurat's 'La Grande Jatte', without the pointillism. The book celebrates the fascination of maps as graphical language - ways of representing in two dimensions the richness of the real world. Lampitt paints the archetypal romantic (and very idealised) English village, set in a perfect landscape:

    "These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance. They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners. Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic."

    Picture 2.pngPicture 1.pngLampitt also worked for Ladybird, including the 1967 title Understanding maps, but information on him is scarce. Google Earth can't compete with Lampitt's golden vision of English Never-Never-Land.  2863882570_5ffe9958f2_b.jpgSecondhand copies appear rarely. A reprint is certainly overdue.

  • The power of ornament

    04126ff5297075aeb5de340b582bc02e.jpgWeb find of the month is a site devoted to complete reproductions of illuminated books. It includes Owen Jones' astonishing Grammar of Ornament (1856), a tour de force of nineteenth century letterpress and chromolithographic printing which has had an incalculable influence on artists and designers from the Art Nouveau to Gaudi in Barcelona.

    Owen Jones' most influential book contains his own re-drawing on 'scientific' principles of over 2,000 decorative designs. The scope is vast: from designs created by 'savage tribes' to ornament from the ancient world, Arabia, China, India and Europe. The motifs presented range from intricate and highly elaborate high Renaissance manuscript illumination to apparently simple geometric tile designs from Moorish Spain and Persia.


    A passion for the orient

    Jones (1809-74) was an architect who became passionate about the superiority of non-European ornament after touring Turkey, Egypt, Sicily and Spain in 1831. Henry Cole, who founded the Victoria & Albert Museum, was one of his many collaborators.

    Jones' passion for the near east found expression in his most significant work as an architect on the interior of Christ Church, Streatham. He was criticised for his  'excessive use' of Islamic motifs there.

    Acclaimed for his decorations for the Great Exhibition in 1851, Jones worked for nine years on the publication of a lavish folio work, which exploited the capabilities of the relatively new and demanding process of chromolithography. He sold property to finance its publication, setting up his own press and training his own staff to produce it. He did not live to see it succeed commercially, and many copies were remaindered.

    Besides including a historical survey and commentary on the many gorgeous full page colour illustrations, Jones developed a series of 37 'design propositions' which attempted to codify the construction of well-made ornament. For Jones: 'All ornament should be based on geometrical construction' And 'true beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want'. In his final chapter he advocated a new kind of architecture based on natural forms.

    The rhythm of life

    There is an enduring appeal in many of these stunning illustrations. They combine a remarkable and carefully constructed rhythmic intensity with a highly developed colour palette. Since the Modern Movement, architects and designers have associated ornament with the literally superficial, seeing it as a layer of irrelevant decoration that obscures the underlying nature of whatever it is applied to.

    For me and I suspect for Jones, the desire to decorate is an integral part of human experience. His use of geometric reconstruction seems to link to metaphysical ideas of the golden section or 'divine proportion' which were taken up by Modern Movement architects such as Le Corbusier.

    Good ornament is intrinsic to the very essence of things.

    The Grammar of Ornament on CD-ROM for designers.

  • Islands of creativity


    Out of the chaos of my doubt
    And the chaos of my art
    I turn to you inevitably
    As the needle to the pole
    Turns . . . as the cold brain to the soul
    Turns in its uncertainty;

    So I turn and long for you;
    So I long for you, and turn
    To the love that through my chaos
    Burns a truth,
    And lights my path.

    Mervyn Peake (1911-68)

    05d2309ee9300aee1f8942d779235c84.pngThis was read today on Radio 4's 'Poetry Please'. The poem is simple, direct and beautifully constructed. Peake was a polymath who deserves to be celebrated for more than just his marvellous Gormenghast, which made such a successful BBC adaptation in 2000, featuring the enjoyably pouting Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

    c76a5aaf609d5440f8d4b6382cec98bf.jpgGormenghast was written on the tiny island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, and Mr Pye was inspired by it. Derek Jacobi made a very memorable Mr Pye for Channel 4 in 1986. Visiting Sark, I could see him (or was it Peake himself?) crossing the 9' wide isthmus, called La Coupée, which divides Little and Greater Sark.

    The Coupée leads to a view of Brecqhou island where the secretive Barclay twins, proprietors of the Daily Telegraph, have built a mock gothic castle. Visits are not possible. There was a warmer welcome on Lihou, an islet connected to Guernsey by a causeway, where we were met by Mr and Mrs Borwick of the baking powder family.

    I love being on islands, worlds in miniature, surrounded by the enticing, all-encompassing sea. Perhaps it's the sea air, or the sense of isolation?  Even the most inconsequential experience is somehow heightened on an island. Smaller islands that lie hidden beyond others have an even more secret appeal.

    e773d99b174dce676ea2e8264649680a.jpgOff Croatia lies the island of Mljet, which means honey, because the Ancient Greeks found so many bees there. According to Homer, Odysseus escaped shipwreck and stayed for seven years with the beautiful nymph Calypso. St Paul is said to have preached on the island, after being shipwrecked not in Malta but here. We walked the green hillsides of the national park, and canoed and swam naked in the gorgeous turquoise water. A narrow coastal inlet leads to a miniature inland sea, with the former Benedctine monastery of St Mary on an island in the middle of it. 

    2a1fec4ba77df80e431b62c436b35c21.pngI will never forget a trip to the monastery on Iona to see John Smith's grave. You reach it by crossing from Mull. Ancient celtic crosses face it out to the Atlantic, and in the graveyard the carved faces of chieftains blur into the stone. This is where, in around 800, monks made the Book of Kells, that masterpiece of calligraphy and illumination now in Trinity College, Dublin. The intricate decoration twists and turns in on itself, all powerful rhythms and fierce insularity.