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Rare Sighting in the Haldon Hills

J. C. C. Mays



Essay written to accompany a selection of books on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World during Summer 2009. Jim Mays was born in Combe Martin, and is Professor Emeritus at University College Dublin.


1 | Colin Sackett works as a book designer. He has also from the beginning made his own books that explore the nature and limits of the book from a typographer’s point of view: testing how books function, the codes they assume and the constraints they impose; how some rules can be ignored with impunity and others can be extended to striking effect. He has also, from the beginning, taken an active interest in human geography, by which I mean the places where the interests of man and nature intersect, or conflict, as distinct from physical geography or political causes associated with geography (climate change, population levels, sustainability). These other kinds of geography cannot be kept separate from human geography, of course, but one can say for sure that Sackett has maintained a sharp separation between art and nature. He is not interested in the comforts of pastoralism or the indulgences of the picturesque or the thrills of the sublime, and this—his broad level interest in human geography and his practical, detailed (non-symbolic, non-political) approach to rural landscape—makes his interventions particularly valuable. He makes books like poems, using appropriate features of typography and book production to structure and test what he says, and I value him as the most interesting writer at work in Devon today. It is unfair to label him an experimental writer and set his work to one side. The word ‘experiment’ shares the same root as the word ‘experience’, meaning to put to the test, and this is what Sackett’s books do with remarkable precision. They are bracingly original and at the same time full of unusually modest wisdom. In particular in the present context, I emphasise that what he has to say about man in nature and the new ways he finds to say it are intimately connected. He looks at typography and the making of books in a way that bears on the way we live in the world.


2 | Take two recent publications that centre on places hereabouts, namely, the River Axe and Lyme Regis. The way into the Axe book is by way of what it is not. From the front of the book the right-hand page sequence follows the direction of the river from sea to source, from the back the left-hand sequence moves downstream with the river’s flow. This self-cancelling movement is cut across at forty-one points by bridges of different kinds. Books have beginnings and ends, front and back covers, but the linear movement is replaced here by a transverse one, raising questions about where, when and why each of the crossings took place. The illustrations at the same time forgo the bridges themselves, picturesque or piquant as many of them are. This is not a sequence of calendar portraits: the crossings are present only as points of vantage, looking up or downstream. Physical appearances are underplayed in low-angled views in black and white under invariably low skies and foreshortened perspective. The contrast is reduced to shades of middle grey on unyielding shiny paper that throws the images onto the surface. Indeed, the proportion of pictorial denial accumulates to a point where one is forced to take stock and consider thepurposed gain. The book interrupts the conventional river story-line of rise, accumulation and outflow, refuses to be sidetracked by the celebratory spirit, and redirects attention onto the human imperatives that have intersected a natural conduit at different times and for different reasons. It offers neither comfort nor manifesto; it is about landscape, settlement and communication: necessary engagements with a natural feature that remains unchanged.
It shows a way of looking at the Axe valley as it has evolved in collaboration with man: not so much nature writing as human geography. The comments are specific and informative, and again what is not said is as pertinent as the chosen words.


3 | The Lyme Regis book can be misunderstood for reasons that are almost the reverse. It appears at a glance like a conventional guidebook got up in a style that was popular in seaside resorts in the middle of the last century. It has a cover composed of picture postcard vignettes, and pieces of information ranging from allotments to Lawrence Whistler come at you in a frankly random A to Z sequence. The explanatory layout is a mismatch of present-day cool, and postage-stamp sized black and white (in fact, mainly grey) snapshots punctuate the subdued explanatory prose. Sophisticated skimmers might even wonder if this is fifties-period pastiche, a deliberately constructed retro item, but they would deceive themselves. The Axe crossings book guides you firmly into the book that it is: this book can deceive you into thinking it is a kind of book it is not, whereas it is the genuine article. It is written as such books used to be written, absolutely straight with no self-consciousness and with the signal advantage that what it says is useful and up-to-date. There is no pretence that the manner might be otherwise, the visual design corroborates the prose style and the integrity is complete. If one takes it for the kind of book it genuinely is, one discovers that one has discerned a difference and made a choice about the way a seaside resort should be. It tells you the launderette opening times and where to buy art materials, about town history and the location of public toilets, about places to walk to and the bus routes. Is there another guide like it anywhere—as thoughtful, of such wide appeal, without a jarring thought or sentence? It is a model production in every sense. As important as its range of content and practical arrangement is the way it suggests how to enjoy a place without destroying it in the
process, assumes a programme for sustainable tourism that is as much an attitude of mind as a set code of practice.

4 | The two books present an interest in places which arrives by a direct route that is valuable for that very reason. Sackett’s eye is on making books that perform a specific function and engage a particular set of preconceptions, and he shapes every consideration to this end. He doesn’t allow himself to get sidetracked by fashionable ideas and current anxieties. The means employed are as simple as he can make them, although so exposed that they require considerable skill to manage, and the results in the end are striking. If the books at times appear difficult to understand, the difficulty disappears if one dumps some mental baggage and considers what’s happening. Sackett is as disconcertingly honest as his methods are precise, and one has only to trust the method to realise what it shows. The books are transactions—mutual exchanges—in which your understanding of the means shapes your acceptance of the ends. You are not imposed upon, only presumed to be awake.


5 | Take as another example, Black Bob, a book that pictures a shepherd with his dog and sheep spread across every opening, time and time again with absolutely no variation. One might guess from the landscape, the breed of sheep and the shepherd’s clothing that the scene represents, say, the Lake District a hundred years ago, but that’s neither here nor there. Sackett, as always, asks you to simply to look at what’s in front of your eyes. The pastoral procession is shown heading left to right, the direction in which one turns the pages and, and yet the figures go nowhere. They are stuck among the repetitions, as somebody said, like a jammed gramophone record. However, the sound that emerges here is not a shriek or a judder or a hole in sound but a constant true note pitched in a natural key that has no need to expire. We have a transfixed moment among tumbling streams and ferny paths, heading expectantly across the page yet forever held in anticipation of what awaits. The event that both is and is not there is so totally obvious that it seems like a wonder, tremulously maintained. It raises questions and at the same makes evident that the irrelevant questions are ones we have imported. As always, it is important that the book is made with such precision; the delicate balance of opposites in the black impression on the white stock; the openings repeating one another with the exactitude of a follies chorus line, the ‘bled’ edges of the pages matching up with nary a catch or swerve. The binding is indeed a casing, almost like a box, containing the soft paper pages in
resistant gloss covers; the cover-lettering, in light-hearted commercial fifties comic idiom, gives way to the idyllic landscape scene it deliberately does not prepare for. The elements of the ensemble combine perfectly and what do they add up to? They are only what they make, what is excluded being as much a triumph as what is there: an image we recognise and respond to, with no more to it other than what we ourselves choose to endow it with. The book is made so that it’s impossible not to cherish it as an object. Sackett has said all he can to demonstrate his concern. It resonates with both celebration and critique, which is enough.


6 | I am tempted to continue with onsixpagestoday, which is literally that: six pages, or three openings, stapled together within a cover picturing a deserted cattle mart. The writing on each page is arranged in double columns; the words and phrases are joined together on each line of each column as if they were separate lines of verse; the lines in the first column begin with ‘a’, and progress through the alphabet ending with ‘z’. You can read thelines down each column separately or you can read across, as it were adjacently. Or you can read the e-version on Sackett’s website, scrolling down a single column without the frill of distraction. What has this to do with an empty cattle mart? Is it about the decline in British farming? Or more broadly about the workings of a market economy, value and exchange? The way into the book, to get anything out of it, and I confirm that it contains a week of fun-packed reading AND you’ll want to come back to it, is to linger over those joined-together words, which become both more trite and more suggestive because they are presented in the way they are. The meltdown of meaning in a country auctioneer’s semi-intelligible torrent of words puts them on a two-way switch. The effect created is not wholly unusual in English verse, where a rhyme word at the end of a line can force a reader to step off into physical
space and for a moment be left dangling. But the dislocation and random malformation of meaning goes further here, and sense bounces out of the pan like popcorn, coruscating with dislocution. In short, this short text, which might look odd or negligible at first glance, contains a good deal (or a bad deal) to reflect on. The way it proceeds is not some burdensome obligation imposed by the writer: it is a way of discovery that has emerged from working with letters; observing the way meaning is shaped by the way they are placed on the page and otherwise presented; the way, hilariously and depressingly, meaning can be corroded.

7 | Every book Colin Sackett makes is different because it serves a different purpose or explores the different consequence of a technical possibility. This is what makes every one of them exciting and it is a consideration I recommend to anyone approaching his work for the first time. He continually returns to themes involved with the world around him, and makes evident that he has read deeply and thought to some purpose about our relationship with the natural world. A number of books testify to that commitment in a direct way, but, as I have tried to explain, it pervades all of them integrally. He is a writer who makes books like poems but not in verse, an artist who works with the materials of book production rather than oil paint and canvas. What he has to say comes from exact observation, a professional assessment of how opportunities can be exploited or misused, a human awareness that preconceptions can shape the way we see but can also be harnessed to make us see things anew. Reader: stop, look, think and even smile. This display gives you the real thing.


River Axe Crossings: A visual survey along the course of the river. Axminster, 2008.
The Complete Guide to Lyme Regis: An A to Z of the Town, Landscape and Coastline. Axminster, 2004;
revised edition, 2008.
Black Bob. London, 1989; second edition Ballybeg, Ireland, 2008.
onsixpagestoday. Axminster, 2006.


CCANW Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World                                                                                                
Haldon Forest Park,
Exeter, Devon EX6 http://www.ccanw.co.uk/