Having missed the last Storying The Past Twitter discussion due to teaching commitments, I was keen to get involved in this month’s conversation about Threads, by Julia Blackburn.
Threads follows Blackburn in her quest to find out what she can about the life of John Craske, a sailor who became a painter and embroiderer after becoming too ill to sail in 1917. In the end, she doesn’t really find out much more about him, and the book is more about his world - that of sailors and that of early twentieth-century Norfolk - as well as people who were linked to him in some way, and the author herself.
Quite a few people in the discussion absolutely loved this book. I was less passionate about it. I didn’t dislike it: the writing was beautiful and I kept wanting to read more, rather than put it down and give up (the sign, for me, that a book is at least decent!), but I did get frustrated by some of the irrelevancies, passages that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and the fact that the book wasn’t really ‘about’ Craske, despite what the cover and blurb said. Part of that may be due to my preference for books where lots of dramatic things happen - my reading diet is very crime novel heavy! Despite the popularity of this book in the discussion, though, there were a few particular points of criticism that came up among us.
A major question that was posed in the conversation was ‘is Threads history?’ to which the answer was generally ‘no’. Threads is lots of things: I think it worked particularly well as a travelogue, as Blackburn wrote a fair bit about her days out in various places in Norfolk looking for clues about Craske (although we really didn’t need to know what she had for lunch in those places). Others suggested it could also fall into the category of memoir, as Blackburn included a lot about herself, including a tragic bereavement that struck her while she was writing the book, which gave previously disjoined-seeming asides more poignancy and relevance.
I and a couple of others also argued that it was not rigorous enough to be considered history, from an academic standpoint. Something that made me think ‘this isn’t history’ was that on a couple of occasions Blackburn admitted to forgetting to follow things up - anathema in academic history! Another tweeter made the very good point that a more academic history would say more about the context, for example, of countryside employment, the wars, women’s lives (with Craske’s wife, Laura, in mind in particular), and the art world at that time.
This led to a further question, stemming from the idea that Blackburn is a writer, rather than a historian: can historians write lyrically, like Blackburn does? I really don’t see why not. It just so happened that in this case, Blackburn succeeded at writing, but not so much at what we would call ‘proper’ history.
Going back to the idea that this is a memoir of Blackburn rather than a history, a couple of further issues were raised. The first: is this book really about Craske? Many of us said no. I remember when I was reading it, even at the beginning I was wondering when Blackburn was going to get on with it and tell us about the guy whose name was in the title. Loads of other people appear in the book - most bizarrely, Einstein, who happened to be in the same county as Craske at some point. I think that’s one reason why this book worked better as a travelogue than anything else for me.
An art-mafia-type lesbian couple recurred in the book as they ‘discovered’ Craske, and bought his paintings to display in London galleries. This fascinating (but not unproblematic - see below) couple could have warranted their own book! A few people in the discussion felt that Craske’s wife, Laura, who naturally appeared a lot in the book, warranted more attention as it was she who made sacrifices to look after her husband.
It was also considered that if she was a memoirist, then Blackburn was not a very self-aware one. It really jarred with me that she described some of the people she met on her travels in quite a condescending way - a particular example being a ‘fat woman buying crisps and chocolate’ who gave her some information at one point. There was also an account of her friends helping a sick old man whose house didn’t have a toilet, which did have a bit of an air of ‘look at my enlightened friends helping this primitive man!’ This was echoed in her not-very-critical account of the ladies who bought Craske’s work - from whom I sometimes got the impression of upper-middle class types patronising (in both senses of the word) their pet poor artist.
There were a few comments in the discussion about the nice pictures in the book, and that made me really wish I’d bought a physical copy, as the Kindle version didn’t do them justice. Besides this, the pictures were deliberately separated from their labels - great if you can flick from picture to label, not so easy on a Kindle - I didn’t even try! But it is great that Blackburn included so many of Craske’s pictures in her work, and brought much-needed attention to them. We certainly liked them.