Saturday, January 21, 2012

The sign of 'the penguins'

A fun afternoon in Greenwich, first to be grilled for a forthcoming podcast about some things what I have writ, and then to a special preview of the newly reopened Caird library at the Maritime Museum.

Whereas once the museum's vast wealth of records on the history of ships, pirates, migration and cool space stuff was housed down the road in Kidbrooke, it's now neatly packed into 9 kilometres of shelves at the museum, which I got to poke my nose round. The chief appeal will be to maritime researchers and those tracking family history (and there's a digitisation project going on at the moment).

But for the casual, nerdy passerby there was plenty to excite, if you have the sense and sophistication to be excited by weird old books. There's volume after velum-wrapped volume of old maps, complete with dragons and monsters, and a sailcloth bound edition (1779) of William Buchan's Domestic medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines with an appendix containing a dispensatory for the use of private practitioners - this copy as used on the Bounty under Bligh.

Of the greatest excitement to me was a copy of Aurora Australis, the book written and published by the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907 over the winter (April to July) of 1908. It's full of drawings, poems and short accounts of the trip by members of the crew such as "Interview with an emperor" (i.e. an emperor penguin). Dork that I am, I thrilled to see ice-berg hyphenated. But the book, the physical object, is a thing of wonder.

The front matter explains that it was "Printed at the sign of 'the penguins'" - beside a neat, square logo - "by Joyce and Wild. Latitude 77°..32' South, Longitude 166°..12' East Antarctica". One of the librarians helpfully told me that this was one of maybe 100 copies produced (the museum holds two copies). That's the print run of some of the small-press stuff I've worked on or reviewed. And they don't compare.

The cover is hard wood - made from a packing case, as the stamp on the inside clearly shows. But it's the quality of the book that's really impressive: good quality lay-out and editing, printed beautifully on a good stock of paper.

So we get an impression of the kind of man that expedition leader Ernest Shackleton might have been in his need to add a second, "Additional preface" with the following caveat:
"But the reader will understand better the difficulty of producing such a book quite up to the mark when he is told that, owing to the low temperature in the hut, the only way to keep the printing ink in a fit state to use was to have a candle burning under the inking plate; so if some pages are printed more lightly than others it is due to the difficulty of regulating the heat, and consequently the thinning or thickening of the ink. Again the printing office was only six feet by seven and had to accommodate a large sewing machine and bunks for two men, so the lack of room was a disadvantage; but I feel that those who see this book will not be captious critics".
Shackleton would later be a member of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition, while his amazing, old-skool heroism in getting his crew - every one of them - safely back from the Antarctic is featured in this week's Corpse Talk comic strip by Adam Murphy in issue 3 of the Phoenix comic. The books I've mentioned - and a whole bunch more cool stuff - is available on request at the Caird library - subject to the terms and conditions on the website.


Wm Keith said...

As an armchair 1900s antarctiquarian I'm extremely jealous.

(As you know full well, Shackleton went on Scott's first expedition, not his second, and their shared adventures on the Barrier fuelled the sort of mutual antipathy normally reserved for rival fanzine editors.)

And while the crew of the "Endurance" all survived (as did the stowaway), people tend to forget about the painfully ludicrous exploits of the Ross Island support party, three of whom died.

0tralala said...

If you are coming to visit the Sibling sometime, you could always book a visit.

Also, the NMM's Shackleton exhibition a few years back detailed the rather depressing fate of the survivors of Endurance. They were basically all sent off to the trenches.

Wm Keith said...

I really should have a look. There's a major exhibition at the Natural History Museum on Scott's final expedition, and I should see that, too. I don't get out and about enough, but I am (with a bit of luck) off to Manchester on Sunday to catch the last day of the Ford Madox Brown exhibition.

0tralala said...

The FMB exhibition is good fun. Went last month but did not have time to blog anything. Think I tweeted a few hilarious contributions.