Penguins and Gills
I have never claimed, even in my most Bohemian moments, soaked in Absinthe and surrounded by young muses, to be a designer. No, when it comes to things artistic (by which I mean matters pertaining to art rather than buggery), I lurk in your shadow - a mere hack with a tyro's understanding of things webbish.
All of which made the events following our last edition of the Gazette even more hurtful. I had, you will remember, attempted to ginger up our flagging organ with a new background. It was inspired, as I'm sure you will have noticed, by the gay shirtings we purchased together on your last visit to Blighty. The sort of candy stripe which would have graced an Action Man's deckchair.
Did I receive encouragement and kind words for my poor efforts? Did I fuck!
Several subscribers with skills in the department saw fit to describe the results as 'illegible'. You, unkindly I felt, remonstrated. Agentleman from Norway was rude in extremely precise terms and an academic from Tuscaloosa has threatened to sue for causing persistent nosebleeds and random fitting.
Am I downhearted? Perhaps a lesser man would be but I have returned to the library, sought inspiration and, I hope, have created something which will find recognition, if not favour, with you and our kind readers.
The head of the page, is, of course, inspired by the original two-shilling Penguin paperback. Oh! the happy hours we have spent between those musty covers. I have a few I've inherited and too many I've bought. 'Decline and Fall' and Stephen Potter's 'Oneupmanship' sit before me as visual stimulus and a couple of metres of others sit in silent splendour on the shelf to my right. My young cousin J, a design historian of some note, expressed a quite laudable enthusiasm for Orwell recently and I felt moved to press my prized 'Down and Out in Paris and London' upon him. I fancy it will serve him as well as it has me.
I live, as you know, in North London. Camden Town, to be precise. A sort of retirement home for left-leaning intellectuals of the last few generations. In many London boroughs you can roam the streets on a Winter's evening and see all manner of vulgar display through people's front windows. Camden is different. It is de rigeur to have a subtly lit floor-to-ceiling bookcase right next to the window, displaying yards of original, orange spined Penguins.
For me, the most splendid part of the Penguin, quite aside from its impeccable literary, social, political and design pedigree is the typeface.
I know little of typography but, that glorious, in your face, circular 'O' indicates that we are looking at Gill Sans - a typeface of such abiding beauty that I have specified it for my gravemarker.
Not only is the font transcendent but the man who created it might justly be regarded as a Two Chaps idol - a candidate for the Pantheon.
Eric Gill was born in Brighton in 1882. He was the very model of the Arts and Crafts Bohemian espousing Catholicism and Free Love with equal passion. His life is a model for our own in licentious excess but just a few anecdotes will suffice to make the point.
Gill was commissioned to carve the statue of Prospero and Ariel on the prominent front of Broadcasting house. Not only did he work on the high scaffolding in a homespun robe and no underwear, (causing young ladies to make pilgrimage to the site to gaze up at his vasty orbs) but he also carved the membrum virile of the infant Ariel to gigantic proportions. The grandees of the BBC had to cover it with a tarpaulin until they could persuade him to chip it back to more modest dimensions.
Throughout his life, Gill experimented sexually to an extent that we would now characterise as satyriac. His erotic woodcuts are still treasured by elderly gentlemen who's tastes run to the Pre-Raphaelite (Oh Dear!) and, Deo Gratia, he kept a detailed diary. He ran the usual gamut of casual liaisons, ménages ą trois and homosexuality but distinguished himself with a fetish for underage servant girls and latterly his own relations. His crowning glory was revealed in two diary entries, shortly before his death...
'Expt. With dog in eve' (the rest has been obliterated) and, five days later....
'Bath. Continued to experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man'.
There is a glorious power in Dylan Thomas's raging 'against the dying of the light' and Lear's last rantings - but having the sheer randiness to take a leisurely bath and then slip one to Fido while staring death in the face... well I just hope I have the strength.
One last thought for an Englishman, settling into his new home. The London Undergound Typeface was designed in 1915/16 by Edward Johnston. He lived with Gill and his family in an artistic community in deepest Sussex . The men worked closely together on the early development of the face and Gill acknowledged that Johnston's work was a major influence on his later Gill Sans.
What is most important to any Englishman is that, any time he feels homesick, he can crank up his laptop, open a document, select Gills Sans 72pt, type the word UNDERGROUND and his heart will swell with nostalgic recognition.