Volume 23 - Spring 2007


Don't Tell me I'm a Bookbinder

by Nigel Jury

Somebody told me that an evening talk on bookbinding was advertised at a nearby village hall, by coincidence just a couple of weeks before my own initiation with a WI audience. It struck me that valuable pointers to technique could be had, so I booked a seat. As the speaker was not in the SoB register, I also prepared for some subtle recruitment.

The lady unpacking books when I arrived had the demeanour of someone used to giving rather than taking instruction, too busy to discuss the benefits of SoB membership. Besides, I sensed from her nervous behaviour that revealing myself as a fellow binder might disconcert her. How wise that decision was. If kept...

The hall filled with ladies, their easy familiarity and disjointed chatter revealing them all as village-family. Fleeting glances in my direction noted the stranger in their midst, and, I was sorry to note, the only male - until one such arrived with his wife who instructed him sternly to sit. Determined to merge into the background I smiled politely when greeted and took a seat at the back, beginning to think that on the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia.

"I think you know our speaker tonight, most of our children have attended her school over the years. Now retired she has taught herself to bind books: please welcome...."

"Does anyone here know anything about bookbinding?"

the speaker immediately enquired, her gimlet eye piercing me for an aeon of agonized indecision: should I admit my slight grasp of the noble craft and possibly embarrass the speaker, or keep quiet? I averted my gaze and said nothing amid general exclamations of

"No, but I've always been absolutely fascinated by books".

The speaker began a presentation rather in the middle of a logical sequence, her clearly unrehearsed performance necessitating several realisations of: "Ah, I'd better show you how to do that bit first..." and soon she experienced some of those irritating problems which only manifest themselves in front of an audience:

"Now where did I put the mull: can anyone see it? What is it? Well, it looks a bit like coarse muslin" "No I don't know why it's called mull"... to be followed later by

"Oh dear, the piece of buckram I cut earlier is actually too small to case this book, but I didn't bring any spare"...

"What? No I'm afraid I don't know why it's called buckram, it's just book cloth"

Several paperbacks were neatly cased and labelled in a colourful variety of materials, the speaker ably proving that she could teach herself technique, but one puzzling difficulty had somehow been imposed: PVA was used straight out of the tub. The speaker explained how quick one had to be in gluing the cover or board, and how accurately the two pieces positioned as the glue was utterly unforgiving. That's odd. Had she not encountered paste or mixture? Again I agonized: Should I offer her advice and appear the (always unpopular) smart-arse or keep quiet and let her suffer? I will try and let her know privately I decided.

Instead of joining the chattering throng at the counter during the tea break, I approached our speaker in some trepidation. She was busy sorting out her workplace. I didn't think she really wanted any advice just then, but short of finding out her address and writing later (anonymously?) I should tell her now and save her much future anguish.

"Lovely bindings!" "Umm"

"jolly hard work using PVA though "Umm"

"Have you ever tried other adhesives?" "No"

"Not even traditional paste?" "No"

Oh well, here goes. Into the deep end:

"Do you know, a little starch paste added to the PVA slows the tack and allows some lateral adjustment"

"Oh does it. And how would you know that?"

Confession time. My explanation of sensitivity to her position appeared not to mitigate entirely my earlier mute deception, but my grilling was brief: it was time for the speaker to start the second half.

"I have been informed by a very kind gentleman that mixing starch paste with the PVA makes things easier"

Her announcement flashed down a laser-gaze shrivelling me across the hall, a dozen other lasers ensuring a crisped finish: there was no mistaking the target. For the remaining time every choice of approach was elaborately checked with 'the very kind gentleman,' her answer to every question referred for my comment until mercifully the session closed. As I looked around I realised Philadelphia was not far enough, the expressions on the ladies' faces said it all: nobody likes a smart-arse. Particularly a visitor, a male visitor.

The single local gentleman seemed anxious to express male solidarity when he approached poised to put a question, but was tartly recalled by his wife before uttering a sound. The village-family gathered around the speaker with their many questions and congratulations. Well deserved praise. Undaunted, I sought to realize my secondary objective.

When most of the audience had departed, I offered the speaker a current Newsletter, explaining it contained all sorts of helpful advice and an application form for SoB membership, should she be interested.

"I am retired and do not belong to societies" came her lofty retort, laser-gaze even more searing at short range. Goodniight

Reproduced by kind permission, from an article that appeared in the Society of Bookbinders Newsletter, Autumn 2006

Nigel Jury - After engineering training in RN, he spent entire working life in large industrial companies persuading disinterested colleagues to adopt new methods generally based on computer systems. Having witnessed the birth of successive new technologies, he is old enough also to have seen their demise, and the unforeseen problems arising from serial obsolescence. We may read books printed 500 years ago, but cannot read archives taped in 1980. Technology has long since overtaken him, and now retired he eschews the incessant intercommunication and impatience of the working place to enjoy bookbinding for friends, and helping people fend off aggressive bureaucracy.


Skin Deep - Volume 23 - Spring 2007

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