An old book for now

Christine Finn
Re-made book for The Library of Lost Books project, Birmingham, 2013

Modern English Writers 1890 - 1914
By Harold Williams
Sidgwick and Jackson, London 1918
2013, Mixed media
Christine had this to say about making her book:

"Soil from Somme and other WW1 battlefields in France and Belgium; pine cone, wood fragment from Canadian and other military cemeteries in Northern France; brass button from a WW1 uniform, donated; square of French chocolate; moss, gathered from pool at source of the River Lugg in Wales (Lugg being pre-Christian deity for 'Light'; rust-red stained wool found caught on barbed wire on farmland near Wilfred Owen's family home on the Welsh Borders. (Owen, one of the foremost WW1 poets, killed during last days of war).
The red mending, or darning, wool symbolises the hand-knitted garments worn by soldiers (by chance the card on which it is wound reads 'Mending Wool' in English, French and German. The needle was made in India. The stitching is left unfinished as symbolic of the lives cut short, potential unrealised, and work unfinished as a result of the Great War.

The book travelled with me on an intensive field visit to the battlefields of WW1, a visit organised for journalists by the tourist organisations in Northern France and Belgium, but which enabled me think through the project. I carried the book while walking the battlefields and looking at artifacts in museums of the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres, Peronne, Chemin des Dames, Mont Saint Eloi, Fort Seclin. It also came with me to military cemeteries at Poperinge, Notre Dame de Lorette, Beaumont-Hamel, and Fromelles. During this time I also discretely collected small samples of soil and found objects to make the work.

During the summer of 2012 I spent time on the Welsh Borders, thinking of Wilfred Owen, who grew up in the area, and about whose last hours I had made a programme for Radio 4 (Bleached Bone and Living Wood, broadcast November 2011). And I was already interested in the use of spagnum moss to help heal wounds on battlefields, from my research into the preservative qualities of bogland. I decided to incorporate something from this liminal vegetation into the work. I hiked out to the source of the River Lugg and gathered weed growing in the pool. The mossy material was left to dry in the sun over several days.

The book was written in 1914, but not published until 1918, and to me it carried inside it the stories of lost writers. Not only those who died in battle, but the many poets and authors who were prominent enough to be featured in 1914, but whose names are lost to us a century later.

On receiving the book, I instinctively felt that I did not want to take it apart, but to creative an object to highlight the redemptive and healing possibility of words. I was also struck by the khaki colour of the binding (it was rebound in the 1930s, again with war on the horizon).

I cut the cover away from the boards with my favourite kitchen knife, then opened them up to push soil, moss and the other materials inside the cover. This disruption was intended to symbolise the upheaval of physical and cultural landscape caused by war. These 'mounds', which by coincidence are the colour of both soil and khaki, are uneven to evoke the battlefields, and also the dolmens of ancient burial, particularly Bronze Age Ireland; a significant number of poets and authors in Modern English Writers are Irish. (My own doctoral thesis at Oxford was a study of how Ireland's archaeology inspired WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney, Past Poetic, Duckworth, 2004).

I completed and sent the work on 28th February, 2013, but it grows as a palimpsest, and how it is received will add to the layers, and pages. Any dust visible on pages and cover is Somme soil."

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