The Past Is Another Country

We’ve been in Bethnal Green this past week, visiting Calverts, the printers cooperative who print our paper and patiently put up with our endless tweaking of the colour before a new design is ready to print. Cambridge Imprint is ten years old, we have just realised. So Calverts have been good-naturedly putting up with our pernicketyness for a decade. It felt particularly good to be making new things and also to see familiar faces. And it was an intense pleasure to have a change of scene. We have always enjoyed our visits to the Great Wen – we go out and explore once the colour is finalised and the paper is on the press – and everything there is exhilarating and different. It was even more so this time, after months of absence and pandemic restrictions. Time seems to move more swiftly in London anyway. New businesses appear, flourish, and abruptly vanish. It seems there is always something totally delicious that we’ve never even heard of before to eat. Next time we visit it is as though that establishment never existed, but we don’t mourn for long because around the corner some new thing fills the gap.

The Bethnal Green gasometers and the Regent’s Canal which flows past them are particular landmarks we enjoy. Gasometers have been a structure of utter fascination to me since childhood. Once upon a time Cambridge had a whole crop of them down on the right bank of the river as it flows out of town. They are long gone, but it’s always a pleasure to see one elsewhere.  I have no desire now to penetrate their mystery by googling to discover what on earth it is that they are for. They are as majestic and baffling as the Himalayas.

The canal is a remnant of an even earlier wave of modernisation, two hundred years ago, when it was the latest technology. Presumably when it was built local people mourned the loss of what was there before, just as they probably loathed the gasometers half a century later. Now both seem incredibly romantic to me. Perhaps a century from now people will marvel at the giant wind turbines with which we are now populating the landscape, and campaign to save them once they’ve been superseded by fusion reactors, or whatever comes next. I must confess to finding them deeply sinister. They remind me of the vast and terrifying walking tripods in The War of the Worlds. And yet the gasometers I find comforting and they fill me with nostalgia.

It’s hard to embrace change, especially when it’s inexorably imposed from without. We are still in mourning for our old studio, which was a disgusting old rat-infested, leaky building on King Street which provided Cambridge Imprint with a much-needed very cheap home for our first five years. We absolutely loved it. During one lockdown or another it was demolished, and now a very spiffy new building is rising from the ruins, for which we feel only disdain. So many other things have vanished during that time – we have emerged from our pandemic burrows to find such differences. Hidden on Sidney Street was a tiny unmodernised branch of Barclays which the higher banking powers seemed to have overlooked: it still had the cashiers’ desks with their glass screens and the sliding hatch in the counter through which you slipped your papers. Those of us (and we were legion) who preferred to talk to a human rather than interact with a machine continued thankfully to use it in preference to the huge shiny indifferent rather airport-like branch in the city centre. Suddenly last month it was gone as if it had never been – the windows painted over, the signage gone. We have been paying in our Cambridge Imprint cheques there since the first days of the business. We were sorry not to have the chance to say goodbye. To the young lady with the blond hair who was always so polite and helpful – we will miss you.

To the younger generation, this preference for human interaction while banking will presumably be baffling. (And what is a cheque anyway? some of you may even be thinking.) The specific and granular qualities of everyday life are also landmarks for which one can feel intense nostalgia, and a desire to hold onto them even when their utility is gone. Perhaps when you no longer had to get an operator to manually connect you on the telephone that too seemed like an unseemly and inhuman loss of politeness, deliberation and courtesy. So many innovations, while immeasurably improving the swiftness and convenience of everyday tasks, remove the appreciation that we are all people, exchanging goods and services with one another for our mutual benefit.  We miss cash in this regard: the exchange of physical tokens, the reckoning of change, was a ritual we enjoyed. Cash seems to be another casualty of the pandemic, though it’s not quite dead yet. We are determined to go on using it for as long as possible. Perhaps it can be brought back from the brink.

Things change, and yet they stay the same. The café next door to Calverts in Bethnal Green where we used to buy avocado toast and a flat white when those were brand new things is long gone. But over the canal in Broadway Market we found a marvellous shop selling cinnamon buns and delicious piping-hot chai in addition to the eggs and bread that first caught our eye in their window. We had a nice chat with the people serving, and also with the fishmonger further up the road. The evolution of food back into an experience that is worth spending time on, in which it’s worth specialising, is a cheering trend.

We were at Calverts to print our new patterns, Quercus and Sprig. They’re now printed but not yet dried, trimmed, or turned into notebooks. The images you see here are of the rejects — sheets on which the colours weren’t quite right and which, transiently at least, went in the skip. The desire to drag them out and make something of them was irresistible, it turned out. Don’t worry, nothing got thrown away. From broken and old things, and from mistakes, new ideas arise. Decay and destruction are maybe even necessary precursors to creativity. The new patterns will be for sale in the spring, and we’ll be in touch when they’re ready. However, since at least one of the purposes of this newsletter is to peddle our wares, I will mention that just arrived on our website right now are four new printing blocks which might come in useful for Valentine’s Day. These have been lonely times. We’re feeling a strong desire to express affection for all our human connections, even bank tellers whose names we never knew.