Our good neighbour shared a book with Mrs Monk, Just My Type by Simon Garfield who, "dances across 560 years of typographic history." "Smart and funny, and accessible" said the New York Times.
This got me thinking about my preoccupation with graphics over the years. It certainly has been at the centre of my working life and of course now with this web site and much else besides.
In 1968 I was obliged to master the art of calligraphy because notes by hand had to be added to large format drawings and these notes were required to inform a builder on how to execute his task. I don't wish to exaggerate my role there since I was little more than an office boy and a gofer. I did have my very own AO drawing board where I learnt my craft.
I was a junior draughtsman at Sir Frederick Snow and Partners, located in Southwark, not far from the new Tate Modern, when it was a functioning power station. Sir Frederick Snow was an esteemed Structural Engineer and a Socialist. He had a gleaming black Rolls Royce and sat up front with his uniformed chauffeur. Sir Fred was never seen in the back seat.
All staff of every rank were expected to leave their workplace for mid morning and mid afternoon tea breaks in the rooftop cafe provided by Sir Fred.. I thought at the time that this was normal work practice and have since found that it is not. I also thought it normal to follow girls in mini skirts up this heavenly stairway for tea and biscuits, twice a day.
I remember the head of our department made a spectacular illustration of a motorway bridge which featured a view of small boy peeing on the embankment. This may well have been a playful snub at boring structural engineers but it also showed me that attention seeking is part of the design process . I would say the small department of architects embraced the free spirit of 1968 and with some relish, while the more prosaic engineers had little or no time for creative thinkers with off message embellishments. 45 years later I can confirm that this remains the case but that is probably a good thing, because we want our buildings and our bridges standing up and not falling down.
Structural Engineers are certainly not known for their typeface choices, but they certainly had the same interest in the accent to the roof top cafe.
As a junior draughtsman looking over my shoulder at more advanced draughtsmen, I soon discovered that others had achieved merit and respect, not for the clarity of their work, but for the flamboyant calligraphy that they adopted. My main rival, Mick Sparrow, was a year or so ahead of me and he dressed resplendently every day in a bespoke three piece suit which he designed himself, never without a tie, complete with a tie clip. He was still a junior and his elders insisted on calling him Spike Marrow to keep him in his place.
I have no pictures of Spike but this is me eating a sandwich, most likely a banana sandwich from Franks Cafe.
Spike Marrow would be a one man Gilbert and George, before Gilbert and George invented themselves and he was my best pal and we had lunch together every day at Frank's Cafe, Southwark Street, which still exists to this day. Frank made banana sandwiches if asked, but would let you know he did not approve of your choice. His wife berated me one lunch time for not finishing my lunch.. She erupted in the kitchen incensed to see some peas left on my plate. She abandoned her kitchen to confront me in her apron, hands on hips.
"Young man, why have you leave my peas?"
Mick Sparrow maintained his composure and showed me how to remain aloof when shouted at by an Italian woman.
I liked Mick Sparrow but my problem was that the boss also liked Mick Sparrow. Mick Sparrow's drawings were inspired works of art but were so dense with content that they would have bewildered any builder in a hard hat. They were nevertheless surreal wonders to behold. His calligraphy was bold enough to be unreadable; and you might call it "narrow gothic" in character. I was never tempted to follow his lead but at the same time I recognised the appeal of his creative energy.
Mini skirts, Frank's Cafe, Time Out and OZ magazines, Mick Sparrow and a drawing of a small boy peeing, inspired me to raise my bar and impress my peers not only with my draughtsmanship but with the calligraphy that would adorn and inform my draughtsmanship on behalf of Sir Frederick Snow and Partners. The calligraphy had to be uniquely mine, because this was a time when the physical hand of the draughtsman could not be removed. Good or bad, the hand of the draughtman, stamped the personalty of the man upon the drawing and was there to behold, and duly published, to be admired by persons unknown, in hard hats and suits.
I would never meet a client of Sir Frederick Snow and Partners.
I chose to follow the modernist mantra that less is more and that this would separate me from Spike. I was given the task of drawing a site plan of a proposed factory where they would construct small caravans in Basingstoke, as I recall unreliably. All site plans most have a "North Point" which is no more than an arrow pointing in the direction of "North" so that anyone that views my drawing of a factory where they would construct small caravans in Basingstoke, would know where they were and where the sun doth shine if at all in Basingstoke.
In the spirit of Mick Sparrow and the small boy peeing and Sir Fred, the socialist with a Rolls Royce in the basement, I designed the most spectacular "North Point" devoting more hours than were necessary but enough to do the best job possible, thus enabling any reader to know, that which they needed to know, or wanted to know about the whereabouts of a proposed caravan factory in Basingstoke, and furthermore the relationship of that factory with Due North. By elaborating the function of the North Point, I would draw attention to the draughtsman charged with providing that information, calligraphically.
I pause to allow you to practise and repeat the adverb I have never used before out loud: calligraphically.
The factory was little more than a square box on a square plot of land. The only interesting element of my drawing would be the North Point and in this way I successfully caused a buzz about the office.
Other staff came about me and with “oohs and aahs” that I took to be complimentary, if not condescending. News of my North Point calligraphy spread beyond my department. Structural engineers heard whispers in the communal tea room. Jeff, an atypical structural engineer that looked like Clapton in his Cream period complete with strange curly locks, came by and passed judgement on my North Point.
"That is beautiful. That is beautiful, Man! That is beautiful."
I have to disclose reluctantly that Jeff was cooler than Spike Marrow, and more charismatic than Mick Jagger and may have been on questionable substances. He certainly convinced me that I needed to grow my hair even longer.
I ran into Jeff in a bar. I introduced him to my then girlfriend who went weak at the knees.
"He is a structural Engineer" I said. "That is not cool".
I was then required to look like this in order to compete for the attention of girls.