Strange Strands

29 Sep 2006


A while ago, Cody produced a font to look good at very small sizes. When he suggested that I name it, I almost immediately came up with Sansmotif. One of my fondest activities is searching out and assimilating new motifs and design styles, especially from history. For example, I've just been thinking about what I can use of The London Post from 1719, with the first serialisation of Robinson Crusoe. The newspapermen running delivering the news from Spain, the long s's, the sudden blackletter, and the inexplicable series of k's at the top... it all adds up to a certain vibrant madness that you don't get from publications these days. Look at the line above where it says "The PREFACE": it's nowhere near straight! Was the ruler invented in 1720? The whole idiom, the whole design, the whole gestalt of the motifs involved is utter joy.

The second level to it is the paper itself. It was apparently a real publication, but there's not a great deal said about it on the Web. The full title is "The Original London Post; or Heathcot's Intelligence", and there's an issue of it from 1722 for sale on for $56 (hmm, only ¦30, perhaps I should treat myself to it). Newspapers from the early 18th century, even The Times from what I've seen, often have a wonderful tongue-in-cheek dry sense of humour. For example, about a woman robber, the Daily Journal of 7th August 1724 says: "The Woman pleaded her Belly, but a Jury of Matrons being impannel'd, they found her not pregnant."

There are lots of very strong motifs like this in design and literature in antiquity, I wonder if it would suit us to have a Tropes and Idioms style wiki for them. The original TV Tropes & Idioms wiki was a wonderul display of the fact that one needn't confine the pattern language phenomenon to just architecture and computer software engineering. If there could be a TV version of BBC Radio 4 and I were controller of the station, I'd probably commission something that investgated the use of the tropes and idioms on the small screen: perhaps a two part series where first the various tropes and idioms are demonstrated, and then second a group of up and coming writers are challenged to make a show incorporating a random set of the idioms.

I've also been thinking about motifs in literature, reading Wikipedia on how romanticism became modernism and then postmodernism. The switch from epistemology (knowledge) to ontology (being) captures it quite nicely in an almost-slogan. This is all Larry Wall's fault for talking about slogans and about the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in his tenth State of the Onion talk. Wikipedia's article on the novel particularly is quite detailed and excellent: I'm surprised that it hasn't got a star yet. If some of the Shakespearean articles were up to that quality, that'd be quite something.

Whilst I'm on Shakespearean matters, there are plenty of motifs there too: in the biographies of Shakespeare. As an age, the details of the late Elizabethan playwrights' scene vanished within mere decades, but the scraps and morsels that they laid down have gradually been coming to light over the centuries that followed. People are still finding stuff. So it's like a jigsaw of a very beautiful work of art, for which there are only a few pieces but we do find another every decade or so.

If you're biographing an artist living in such a time that art just flowed from the walls, then you're entering into art criticism. As with all art criticism, the context of the criticism is as important as the criticism itself, but since biography is generally thought of to be static, a science and a way of discovering immutable facts, the context has to be rediscovered later too. There is, of course, a core body of facts: there are manuscripts giving us dates and tax defaultings and purchases and so on. But how these are ordered, linked together, and how the ramifications of the information are interpreted and presented... that's something which is dependent on the biographer.

So Shakespearean biography, perhaps most biography in general, is not a static thing. And it raises its own motifs which have changed over the decades, and which also might be worthy of documenting, though I suspect less than for, say, the design of 18th century newspapers.

Strange Strands, Sansmotif, by Sean B. Palmer
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