Book Review: ‘Threads’ by Julia Blackburn


Threads is an unusual, extremely enjoyable book: not so much a biography of the invalid Norfolk fisherman turned artist John Craske, as a book about trying to write a biography of the invalid Norfolk fisherman turned artist John Craske. As we used to be instructed in our school maths assignments, Julia Blackburn shows her working. This is a book about researching John Craske, pulling on his threads, so to speak. As Blackburn says early in the book:

I suppose the trick is to trust the process and to not mind when you reach a cul-de-sac of one sort or another and to not get in the way when things seem to be going well, even though you don't know where they are heading.

Born in 1881, Craske fell into what he described as ‘a stuporous state’ in 1917, and spent most of the rest of his life painting and embroidering from his sick-bed. His subject was mainly the sea. Think of him as the Alfred Wallis of Norfolk, and you won't be far wrong. He was eventually ‘discovered’ by the writer Silvia Townsend Warner and her lesbian lover, Valentine Ackland, who acquired a number of his works to sell in various art galleries. Apart from that, there isn't much to go on, although Blackburn eventually manages to tie a few of her loose threads together.

Threads is a magnificently illustrated book, printed on high-quality paper. More books should be made to this standard. At times, it reminded me of the writings of W.G. Sebald. Soon after reading it, I read Patti Smith's M Train, which turned out to be another Sebaldian book about writing a book. They are two very different books, with something in common. I enjoyed them both immensely.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.