The Method of Drifting

Ian Patterson

  • Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn
    Cape, 344 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 224 09776 5

In the final pages of The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald imagined ‘the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread’. Sebald was talking about weavers, but the feeling must be common to all sorts of artists, and to researchers, too. Getting hold of the right thread when you’re trying to find out about a life or anything else is a matter of luck: you don’t know what will lead somewhere useful or join up with other threads until it does. Every time you look back over fruitless archive searches, unhelpful conversations, dead addresses, unanswered emails, the intricate design you’ve imagined becomes pointless or malign and you feel like abandoning the project altogether. I don’t know of many books that give a better sense of the frustrations and excitement of research than Julia Blackburn’s account of her attempt to find out about John Craske.

Detail from Craske’s ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’
Detail from Craske’s ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’

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