Things that are lost: a story of a cover

I first met this story about six years ago, perhaps seven. Published in 1927, written by a child, between the ages of nine and twelve. From first reading I have been haunted by the author, Barbara Newhall Follett.

Some time ago I tried to find a publisher for the book. The first I showed it to said to me, “You wrote this, didn’t you? You wrote it and then made up that most amazing back story.” I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered that they thought I could be so clever, or insulted that they thought I wrote like a twelve year old. I have tremendous respect for the minds of children, and love the words in the book, so I came down on the side of flattery.

But complications ensued, and then along came The Lost Words.

Roll forward a few years, and Barbara Newhall Follett would not go away. In conversation with my agent Jessica Woollard she came up, along with her story. So many parallels to The Lost Words. Barbara loved dictionaries. Her literacy, both natural and in words, was so rich. She loved the wild places, thrived in them, and she created a wild child of perfection in a Utopian dream sequence of a novel. Jessica took the book to Simon Prosser and Hermione Thompson at Hamish Hamilton. The resulting work, The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, with introduction and illustrations by me, with be published on 3rd Oct of this year.

For the cover, designed by Alison O’Toole, I inked a cloud of butterflies and stood back. Alison and I have worked together on a few things now. She read the introduction I had written and then……

she created something so beautiful. Gold dusted butterflies and a rising swallow. So elegant.

I don’t want to say too much about the book. Suffice to say that the author still haunts me. I’ve spent so much time in the pages she wrote that I think of her as a friend. There are so many things in her writing that show her to be a creature out of time. She was a reader, a walker, a lover of books, wild places. She would not be bound by convention, refused the role society offered her, sailed her own path. Her voice, through her writing, is wild, free and achingly beautiful. And my hope is that through this re-issue of her work she will haunt you too.

Most of the work for The house Without Windows happened outside, reading on the hill, on the beach, writing also, mostly at the beach and then swimming. While reading about the sea where in the book white birds dived into the water a tern flew across the bay, dived, rose again. On the hill as she spoke of swallows I looked up to see swallows in the sky. It was a curious and haunting parallel. And one that I love. The image above shows the original first edition, prized, but also battered from being carried around so much. It’s a book that loves the outside world.
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The Lost Words Blessing

Many things have grown from The Lost Words- a spell book. Such fine and wonderful things. I love how the book has become a portal of escape for children into the outside, away from the classroom. I love how it has become a portal for those who live with dementia and the people who share their lives, again, giving escape, finding lost memories. But of all the things it’s become, and all the things I have done in my life, working with these people, at Folk by the Oak, the musicians, sound engineers, visuals, designer- working with them has been THE best thing. The best thing. Ever. I’m at a loss to say more, other than, with their craft, learned over years, they take the message deeper.

Soul music.

This is The Lost Words Blessing. For those who are struggling to cope with the news about climate change, I hope this brings you peace of mind to see a clear way forward, courage to make changes, to know you aren’t alone. It’s a call to link arms and stand against those who deny, those who make false gods of money.

Visuals by Elly Lucas

Edited by Ben/Dave, the man with two first names.

Please share.

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Wrapped in work and happy at home

I love living in a place where I can walk out of my door and hear a cuckoo calling.

I’ve been home for a few weeks now and it has been blissful not going anywhere and just working in my studio day after day. Hannah is away, and she left her cat and her dog with me, and I have been falling in love with Little Fishheads, as he is now known. Right from the first he came walking.

And The White Cat came too.

Leaping the rocks, coloured like his fur, both cats shine in the sun and sparkle, as if the stars of night caught in their coats.

I’ve put out some stone to walk between, like marker stones, and I am hoping they will stay and I can see how long the gold remains.

Mostly The White Cat walks. But sometimes he does still like to hitch a lift on Robin’s back.

There’s so much to say, and some I can’t tell. Soon I can talk about a new book, or two. Now I can talk about The Lost Words Prom, to be held on 25th August in London at The Albert Hall. And some of the work I have done I can show, but some remains secret, for a while still.

I painted, at last, the woman who walks with fish in the world’s winds. This is for a book, and more on that soon. It will, I think, be called The Unwinding. Because that is what it is. For there are times when I should be painting things, but other images step forward and demand to be realised.

And I have been steadily gilding pieces worked for the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital. Here, heron rises, carrying the twilight under her wings. White gold glimmers.

And here, the soul of a kingfisher is stitched in gold leaves, literally.

There’s a lp version of Spellsongs. It is possible to ‘upgrade’ a purchase, if you’ve bought the cd, but want to change your order to the lp. It’s a limited pressing, though there may be more. A double album, with the sleeve-note book enclosed in the box.

Next year’s calendar is Spell Songs themed also. This will be available from Graffeg, and we hope to have some at Hay Festival. How can that be, that next year is 2020?

Today the Carnegie Greenaway team posted the film of me talking, in my studio, about The Lost Words. I’m really hoping this will be useful to schools. There are so many schools working with the book, so many children writing and painting inspired by it. I’m so glad, but have been inundated with invitations to visit schools, and cleave so much to home, to my brushes and paints and creature friends. So I am hoping this will help, be useful, inform. My desk looks so cluttered. I keep meaning to clear it, but then I just paint.

Nicola Davies and Dan came to visit, oh so very briefly. We walked together to the top of the hill and sat and watched and listened to birds. So lovely to see them both.

Another few weeks before I set forth again. This time to Hay. The walk I am leading is sold out, but Spell Songs has been moved to a larger venue, so more tickets have been released. It is our hope that we will have the cd’s by then. It would be great to play to a full house so please, help us spread the word. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and Hay Festival is a tonic for the tired soul. This year the exhibition will be Axel Scheffler’s Drawing Together show. And Axel is being awarded the Hay Medal for illustration. I remember when he first came to collect. Even then his work was a delight.

I’ve more news to come, but for now I think it is time to curl by the fire with cats. And think about how to finish and then what to do with this.

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A while back. Not so long ago.

An email from my agent came, forwarded from Letters to the Earth. The request was for letters, to the earth, to be read at various venues, by people. Protest letters, love letters. Could I write one, would I write one.

This is what I wrote.

When I was young I would lie, pressed to the earth, eyes wide to the skies. I would watch you in your hundreds, criss-cross, hunt on the wing, layers of birds, some so high, seen only as dark commas against the blue, some so low to skim the reaching seeds of long grass.

When I was young I believed you carried the promise of summer sun on your wings.

When I was young I watched as you gathered mud in your mouth to build a home beneath the eaves of the houses of humans. Architect, potter, parent. I watched your shadow rise and fall, heard your children call, saw you answer them with food, watched them fledge.

When I was young I marvelled as you gathered, toward summer’s end, small dots on wires like wild music, fast, furious rhythm, written against the sky. 

When I was young I didn’t know the distance you travelled, away from my winter, to warmer lands. I didn’t know how you carried in your bodies the maps of the earth, the paths of the flight, scenting the land, knowing its shape, each rock and stream and tree and river and ocean. I didn’t know how this knowledge was born in the egg, before egg became bird became flight, but I knew you were a miracle. Every single soul.

Once some believed you slept all winter beneath the ice in ponds.

Once some believed the Earth is flat.

Now some believe climate change is fiction.

But now, when I lie on my back in the long grass, breathing its scent, eyes wide to the sky, my heart still lifts to see your wings, though you are now so few. Each year more sky, more space, and each single swallow more precious for that. 

And I still marvel to see you gather as autumn scents the air, still writing your wild music on the wires in the sky. But now the music is a lament, more space between each note, a song of praise and loss, an elegy for the ghosts of gone birds.

And I know, I cannot live without you.

And I sent a swallow, and now she flies with the Letters to the Earth and it is, for me, beautiful to see her alongside protestors in London.

And alongside my letter there are many others, now published online, for many to read, to gather, to sing, to shout for change. But the one that has moved me most, in its words and delivery is this, by Nick Drake.

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