The Joyful Art of Derrick Harris

In a recent article for Litro I wrote about second-hand bookshops, those “pubs for the mind”. The essay was called Just Browsing and contained a brief reference to the illustrator Derrick Harris. I first became aware of his work when I picked up an odd but entertaining old book called Word for Word, An Encyclopaedia of Beer. I was intrigued by the jargon of the brewing industry. But it was the illustrations – small black and white wood engravings, bold and jaunty, with sometimes sinister flourishes – that really caught my attention. I was in the excellent Carnforth Bookshop at the time, nosing my way through a succession of creaking rooms, all crammed with books. I believe it was a birthday expedition, a couple of years ago perhaps. (The messy all-dayers and frazzled nightclubs of curly-haired youth had long been superseded by sedate railway journeys across the north country.)

Carnforth is, of course, famous for its railway station, central to Brief Encounter. Carnforth itself seemed a rather desolate place – at least it appears as such in my untrustworthy memory, a place of wide corners and sloping roads to nowhere. The pubs were uninvitingly big and menacingly empty, with screens glowing in the gloom. There was, however, an excellent little bar serving real ale at the station. I hope it is still there.

The bookshop where I discovered Harris was an endless warren of rooms and sub-rooms. It was almost overwhelming. A few solid hours of browsing lay ahead. I heard a voice. “Relax, take your time. You’ll find some good stuff here. It’s only a matter of time.” The voice was in my head. In such a promising bookshop one almost feels it a duty to leave with armfuls of treasure. But my haul was meagre. A copy of Wolf Mankowitz’s My Old Man’s a Dustman, “the story of a Cockney Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza”. From the flyleaf: “In this story Wolf Mankowitz uses the Cockney idiom with immense relish, making the most of its audacity and gorgonzola ripeness.” How could I resist? I still haven’t read it, I don’t know why. It draws me in. I’ve taken it off the shelf to have a look. It has a nice jacket, designed by Sydney Mould, with an attractive, trembly illustration of the Cockney duo making their way across a rubbish tip.

There were a few William Sansoms to be had in the shop but I considered them overpriced. In the age of the internet everyone’s an expert. So I left with two slim volumes, the Mankovitz and Word for Word. I took them home on the train as Cumbria and then Lancashire darkened through the windows.

A few months later I looked up Derrick Harris. There wasn’t much to be found on the internet. I contacted his Estate. A little later I was invited by Catalina Botello to view the archive. It was an immense privilege to meet Harris’s widow, Maria. She sat with a jigsaw on her lap as she told me of her life with Derrick. It was a delight to see Harris’s sketches and doodles, his homemade Christmas cards, his imposing ink-stained woodblocks. It was a bright day in early summer when I visited Catalina and Maria, a day of glinting windows and halting traffic. Workmen yelled. Students meandered in and out of grand-looking buildings. A woman in huge sunglasses carried a tiny dog in her arms. A boy dropped his ice lolly and let out the most awful squeal of anguish. It was a Derrick Harris kind of day, full of interest and charm and human mischief.

I wrote an essay on Harris, Inspired by the Day, also published by Litro. I’m heartened by the positive response it’s had, with people curious to know more about Harris, to see more of his work. People do seem to warm to his images. Perhaps his time has come at last. It would be wonderful to see an exhibition of his work in the UK. At one time there were plans, I believe, to include Harris in the Design series of books, joining such figures as Abram Games, Edward Bawden, E. McKnight Kauffer, David Gentleman and Peter Blake. Harris’s delightful colour illustrations for a children’s book, Royal Flush, remain without a story.

For more information on Derrick Harris, please visit: www.derrick-harris.com

All images copyright The Estate of Derrick Harris.

 

Browsing on a Sunday afternoon

This afternoon, after an uninspired but tolerably energetic stint in the gym, I wandered over to the bookseller on Oxford Road. I’d seen the tables being set up earlier, just outside All Saints Park, as I ate an overripe banana on my way to the gym. The thought of all those books, musty and foxed, sustained me as I cycled grimly in front of a television screen busy with growling rappers and sneering divas. Soon, I told myself, this bodily torment will end. Soon I will be checking the condition of bindings and dust-jackets, picking out obscure Pelicans and Penguins for closer inspection.

Freed from the bright purgatory of kettlebell and rowing-machine, I ambled over to the tables. There were two long rows today – a chance for some proper post-gym browsing. You never know what you might find on these tables. It’s a casino of the mind. There was a big selection of communist literature, as there often is, from Trotsky’s provocative analysis of Swedish volleyball to Lenin’s thoughts on contemporary millinery. None of it has sold for weeks, perhaps in protest at the capitalist system. There was another table piled with more insidious red propaganda – big, shiny hardbacks about or ‘by’ such luminaries as Ferguson, Beckham, Ferdinand, Butt. These profound tomes inspired such awe in passers-by that no one stopped to investigate. Alex and Eric received far less fondling than did Leon and Karl.

For me, it wasn’t a vintage browsing session. But an hour or two spent nosing through strange books among sometimes strange people is never wasted. I dabbled with a bit of Henry James – I’ll try anything on a Sunday – but halfway through the opening sentence I felt the first faint throbs of a migraine. There’s usually a good stock of luridly-dressed sci-fi – I was drawn to Harry Harrison’s No More Room. In the end I came away with an interesting and sharply-designed Pelican paperback on mental asylums, which has certainly added cheer to a chilly Sunday afternoon.

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on secondhand bookshops, my essay Just Browsing: An Ode to the Second-Hand Bookshop can be found at Litro.