I’m not sure whether this blog will be fun or serious. A bit of both probably. Like a box of liquorice allsorts. But to begin at the beginning.
I spent last Thursday morning in the hallowed halls of the Victoria and Albert Museum, not as a visitor, which would have been usual and familiar, but as a judge in a competition and not the sort of competition I usually get myself involved with. I’m well used to poetry competitions and find it relatively easy because I know exactly what I’m looking for when I start reading the entries but on this occasion I had been asked to judge book covers and illustrations and I was doing it without knowing what the criteria were, which I have to admit was a trifle – shall we say – foolhardy.
But there I was, sitting in a small, well lit room, which is the office belonging to Martin Flynn, who not only runs and cares for the museum’s enormous library but also organises this annual competition. He is the sort of man anyone would like at once, gentle, learned, hospitable and with a trace of a lovely Dublin accent in his voice, and he had led me most carefully through the maze of back stairs and along a balcony overlooking a vast library full of quiet books and readers until we reached his office. It turned out to be a small cosy place, with a high window filling one wall and all three remaining walls ranged with ancient books. I’d have liked to have stayed there for days and just picked and read. But there was a small table set about with four chairs and stacked with the books whose covers and illustrations we had come to judge and it wasn’t long before the two other judges arrived and we began our work.
(Pause while I adjust my wig and hoist my red robe more comfortably over my shoulders!)
My two fellow judges were Lloyd Grossman, whom I recognised from the TV and Jane Scherbaum, the Head of Design at the V&A, who was both stylish and pretty with a very warm smile and made me feel almost at once that I was in good hands. As I was.
At first I simply listened hard to what the other two were saying. It quickly became obvious to me that my opinion of covers and what they were for didn’t fit this occasion at all. I’d always seen them as a sales adjunct to the book and judged them accordingly. These two were looking at them as works of art, which of course they were, and although the nature of the book came into their consideration, it was the quality of the art which was most important. So we progressed, each of us saying what we had liked about our particular favourite choice and listening to what the others had to say. I was quite gratified by how smoothly it all went.
We chose a delightful, eye-catching children’s book cover about a crocodile, which had been my second choice, so I was already halfway to liking it: a cartoon from the Daily Telegraph which showed Donald Trump as a witty and pointed version of Hokusai’s wave: and a set of reprints of Virginia Woolf’s novels, which I had rejected out of hand when I first saw them because there was no point of reference between the cover and the novel. But as Jane pointed out in her gentle way, the design was superb, unusual, unexpected and eye-catching.
So the deed was done and very satisfactorily. But then, I’ve always enjoyed liquorice allsorts.