Monthly Archives: November 2014

Lost Moorings

Lost MooringsLost Moorings – Simenon. Cover by Romek Marber, 1962. Georges Simenon was one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day. He wrote close to 200 “serious” novels, 150 novellas and scores of pulp novels using a number of pseudonyms.

In 2005 he was nominated for the title of De Grootste Belg (The Greatest Belgian). Simenon wrote in French and, unsurprisingly, did well in the Waloon (french-speaking) version of the contest, finishing in 10th place behind Jacques Brel, Eddie Mercxx, Herge and Rene Magritte, but ahead of Adolphe Sax, Reubens and Peyo, the comic artist responsible for The Smurfs. In the Flemish version, Simenon was placed 77th, behind most of The Smurfs. Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

Simenon is best known for the 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Jules Maigret – known simply as Maigret to most people, including his wife. Maigret was a commissioner in the Parisian police and the novels were translated into all major languages and several of them were turned into films and radio plays; two television series were made in the UK.

Maigret had much in common with his more modern, Edinburgh counterpart, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. The two men shared an unconventional approach to detecting, a laconic manner, and a fondness for alcohol. Like Rebus it was a matter of personal pride to Maigret that that he could hold his liquor. If Rory Gallagher had been around in Maigret’s time I’m sure the French detective would have listened to his music as well. On vinyl, of course.

It’s easy to get these fictional detectives mixed up. Maigret was a French “dick” created by a Belgian author. Hercules Poirot was a Belgian “dick” created by an elderly Englishwoman. The protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim wasn’t a detective at all, but his creator was both an old woman and a complete dick.

Anyway, Lost Moorings isn’t one of Simenon’s Maigret novels; it contains two tenuously connected novellas; Banana Tourist (Touriste de Bananes) and Blind Path (Chemin sans Issue). The only person I can find who will admit to reading it is Mike Ward who reviews the books he reads on his daily commute from Brighton to London. He describes it as, “A sad and slightly disturbing pair of novellas”1.

The Marber Grid

The Marber Grid

So,  perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is its cover, designed by Romek Marber. He arrived in England in 1946, one of the group of European émigrés who went on to influence British graphic design in the second half of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s Germano Facetti commissioned Marber to design an entire sequence of titles for Penguin Crime. His design approach – the ‘Marber Grid’ – and his rather dark visual images  had an immediate impact. The Grid was so successful that Facetti applied it, first to the blue Pelicans and then to the orange covers of Penguin fiction. Its spirit is evident throughout The Perfect Library.

Note 1. You can read Mike’s full review at:  

A Book of Scripts

A Book of Scripts – Alfred Fairbank. Cover by Jan Tschichold, from a design by Juan de Yciar, 1960.

A Book of ScriptsThe author of A Book of Scripts was Alfred Fairbank who, like Samuel Pepys,  spent most of his working life as a naval administrator in London. Pepys’s famous diary gave a first hand account of events such as the Great Fire of London, but Fairbank’s legacy may well prove to be even more long-lasting.

During his time at the Admiralty, Fairbank spent his leisure time learning to produce illuminated manuscripts and established a reputation as a calligrapher. Around 1920 he came across some manuscripts from the Italian Renaissance  in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fairbank decided that the best qualities of these scripts could be amalgamated into a simple modern hand, giving an elegant and contemporary solution to the problem of writing quickly, fluently and legibly. He called this new hand,  ‘italic’.

After the Second World War he founded the Society for Italic Handwriting which aimed to improve the nation’s handwriting by aspiring to the standards of the Renaissance Italian masters.

When he retired from the Admiralty, Fairbank moved to Hove and taught at Brighton College of Art from 1955 to 1966. He also taught italic writing to student teachers. One of his colleagues described “a tall figure, stooping a little from years of calligraphy, moving punctually and deliberately up the hill to the teacher training department, holding a net bag with some precious book or manuscript to share with the class”.

alfred-fairbankThe Art College bar in Brighton played a special part in my life.   In 1978 I was a postgraduate student at the teacher training department which by then had moved even further up the hill, close to Sussex University. In the only photograph I can find of Fairbank he comes across as a somewhat buttoned up gent, who would have stood out in the staffroom of the achingly hip establishment that the Art College had become by the late 70’s. But I wish his italic writing classes had been part of the PGCE syllabus; at least I would have learned something useful.

Fairbank developed the first italic nib and devoted most of his time to improving the handwriting of the British public through articles such as ‘A Graceful Cure for the Common Scrawl: A Fair Italic Hand’ and the series of nine  Beacon Writing Books. Despite his efforts, standards declined steadily as schoolchildren in the 60s and 70s were left to develop their own individual  handwriting styles.

At his Memorial Service a friend said, “Not only was he one of the finest calligraphers of our time but there was given to him that rare chance to turn a personal activity into something far-reaching…. he eventually turned his scriptorium into a worldwide movement for the reform of handwriting”.

Today, most people know italic as the little slanted that sits between B and U on their word processor’s  menu bar.