William Blake the printer tromps endlessly around London, stout and baby faced like a grimy, windswept William Hague. It's 1790; you still hit farmland up at the top end of Tottenham Court Road and Ealing is a distant village. I can't picture Blake without bad weather and haze: the romance of an urban thunderstorm, our aspirational visionary caught out in it, soaked through, staring slightly out-of-focus at splotches on the surface of the Thames through a blurring smog.
Like imagining Karl Marx's similar expeditions on foot a century later; or multi-mapping Sherlock Holmes cases; it's the stink and noise one has to get one's head around. They're entirely different to what we wade through today: there's no motor fuel or electric railway lines or amplified music, no electricity. The smell and heat is human and animal and alive, without machines to interfere: a feral city full of horse-shit.
But we track and map now in an entirely different, more living way. On smartphones, with apps, like 'checking in' on FourSquare, the ghosts of each-other become more tangible. Imagine digging that out of coded history in the distant future: if Will Self or Brian Cox would just oblige by tagging their every move, some digital cultural archaeologist of the 23rd century might attach meaning to movement.
"It is solved by walking," said St Francis, later parroted by Chatwin in the Australian outback. Solvitur ambulando.
I've done four lengthy walks around London so far, most recently to visit every publicly viewable Henry Moore sculpture. At that point, roughly two years ago, there are eight of them on display around London. We started up near Highgate at Kenwood House and captured seven of the eight in one day, fourteen miles down through Charing Cross, east along the north bank to Tate Britain, across the bridge, down through Kennington and then out to Battersea Park. A few weeks later I went alone to capture the eighth in the entrance to Chelsea hospital.
The most powerful moment was a cultural comparison between one Moore, Two Reclining Figures #5, fenced off in the beautiful grounds of Kenwood House and another in the same series, Two Reclining Figures #3, hidden among high-rises on a council estate south of Kennington. This sculpture wasn't viewable from the road, it was definitely placed there for the residents and you had to really get amongst the buildings to find it, yet it wasn't fenced off but sat upon and loved by locals. Not quite used as football goalposts but you know what I mean.
I wish I could better explain the sheer power of seeing this class contrast highlighted by two similar sculptures in two different surroundings.
I did another one this Spring, themed on Paolozzi after researching and finding nine examples. He's at Euston Station, Pimlico Station and outside the British Library. He did the crazy tiles at Tottenham Court Road Station which have survived the refit. My drummer Ben wants to plot a John Harrison walk starting in Greenwich - but that's an insane last three or four miles uphill towards Crouch End, so I'm hesitating. Maybe we'll do it backwards.
When I read Ackroyd's Blake half a decade ago I remember finishing the book convinced that William Blake had murdered his brother Robert. Towards the end of his life he got involved in a culty little Christian sect and, although Ackroyd makes no insinuation at all, I couldn't shake a conspiracy obsessive's air of suspicion over the whole bit around the death of the brother. Officially he was killed by consumption. William credits Robert posthumously with developing key aspects of his printing techniques. By this point Blake was attending these weird little prayer meetings, communicating with the dead and getting deeply psyched out. Tripping his nuts off, basically. He claimed he saw his brother's spirit rise. Well, if that's not evidence for nefarious doings I don't know what is.
With the scale of the city surrounding him the great mirror for Blake's unfathomably epic vision, mechanics and moving metal are themselves more of an extreme, more of a novelty. The printer physically etches, pokes and scratches these words and pictures that will make him immortal onto a big metal sheet and then fucks about with smelly multi-coloured dyes and inks. Then he uses a gross futuristic mechanical contraption - more at home in our time than his - until he's rendered himself a page of DIY masterpiece, or until the housemaid calls him in for tea. Leant over the work-top in the garden shed, the true inventor of the comic book, Blake does sci-fi. And the most 'indie' publishing system imaginable, far more exclusive than a modern limited edition 7" single. 200 copies would take weeks.
The re-emergence of these manual artisan printing techniques is one of my favourite bits of modern craft revival, although they scare me too. Clearly, creative people now should make any physical product as close to fine art as possible. Reduce the size of your print run and allow the digital space to have the mass distribution of audio-visual, yet regain true ownership of the physical items, which you sell on the road. Behave like fine artists when it comes to packaging, processing and print. Then behave like stand-up comedians when it comes to live performance: tour long and hard with as low expenses as possible. Make the tour the living, breathing adventure of a life and include as many smaller towns as you can, because they got left out so badly in the boom years.
There's something astonishing about the stretching out of time when you go temporarily itinerant and live on the road for a bit. A week ago feels like a month ago because the experiences (both positive and negative) and continual day-to-day change is so involving and enriching.
Roughly 20 copies survive of Blake's Songs Of Innocence, even fewer of the complete Innocence and Experience double limited edition gift pack. It's so exclusive, handmade and steeped in the effort - sweat - of the man at the machine, even without taking any of his actual content into account, it becomes obvious that his closest contemporaries today aren't the art world's mixed media giants, or the digital world's cutting edge intellectuals, or even the speaking poets. Instead they're the edgy outsiders who do it themselves, the self publishing multi-disciplined uncool outsiders, the Billy Childishes or Solo Bass Steves, or personalised clothing eBay resellers, the stall-holders whose ideas get pilfered by the large accessory chains.
William Blake was a 'maker' in the exact same sense that the geek class has now reclaimed the word. The future is makers and walkers, both.
This essay was originally published (on paper) in the first issue of Tooting Free Press, June 2012
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