What a bind! Joan Rosier-Jones

Joan Rosier-Jones agonises over Coptic bookbinding.

A student of mine once wrote a delightful story called “The Capsicum Conspiracy” for his daughter’s ninth birthday. His wife went on the internet and learned how to bind it into a book, and the child had a special one-off gift which she will treasure all her life. I have always wanted to bind a book. Books, in fact. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to be able to make sketch pads and notebooks as gifts; to be able to bind some anecdotes between two covers and distribute them among the family; to recover books which are falling apart from too much loving?

The local Community Education Service (CES) ran bookbinding courses but they were always over several weeks, and I was never in town long enough to be able to join in. Then came a class on Coptic bookbinding, which was only one day’s duration. I registered and received the list of essential equipment: a cutting board, bone knife, cutting knife, glue stick, bulldog clips, paper for the cover, thread for the binding and wax for the thread.

Not without difficulty I managed to get these all together and duly turned up at 9am on the appointed day: eager, happy to be embarking on this new venture. I was disappointed to see how sadly lacking was my cutting board – all the other students had proper green cutting mats with useful lines and squares on them – but it was a small matter. I couldn’t wait to get started.

My euphoria was short-lived. It turned out to be the worst day I have spent in a long time.

The first step was to cut the paper to the required size for a note book. Some of the other participants had done bookbinding before: they were there to learn how to do the Coptic binding. They were well ahead of the rest of us, newbies to the art, but even the new participants were soon ahead of me. As one of them told me, not unkindly, I was (am) “cack-handed”. My hands, my arms, my whole body could not get into the rhythm of this simple cutting exercise. My book got smaller and smaller as I tried to cut my paper into matching sizes.

The old hands went off for lunch, the new hands had cut their sheets into precise dimensions, folded them into seven batches of six sheets, flattened the fold with the bone knife (I had wondered what that was for) and were pasting their covers. I was still lining up my paper.

Eventually the tutor took pity on me and finished standardising my paper with a few deft swipes. She took two seconds to cut the cardboard for my cover into shape and stood over me while I nipped and tucked the cover onto the cardboard and put it in the press. At about the time all the others were coming back from lunch, I was quickly swallowing my sandwich, which had seemed so appealing when I made it but now tasted like cardboard, and gulping down a hasty cup of coffee. With tired step and aching back, I rejoined the group.

Stage two was the binding and if I thought the morning difficult, this was twice as hard. Here my cack-handedness was shown in an even worse light. Coptic binding is intricate. After you have waxed the cotton and threaded the needle you are required to push the needle up into the top of the cardboard cover and down again without splitting the cardboard. Then follows a little dance with the needle, like a barn dance of the hands, in, out, up, down, in again and a do-si-do. This is done about 160 times as each of the seven batches of paper is attached to the covers. My fellow newbies were kind and patient every time I asked where the needle went next, which was practically every stitch of the way.

I found a rogue stitch sitting where it ought not. The tutor came to look. She, too, was eminently patient with me. “Do you want me to undo it for you?” she asked. “No,” I shrieked. I was tired. I wanted the class to be over. I wanted to pack up my inadequate board, my bulldog clips and the rest and go home, possibly to bed.

The tutor took pity again and finished the binding for me in a few seconds flat, and I was done – in more ways than one. However, before I could leave we had to display our books in the middle of the table. From the outside mine did not look too bad; smaller than the rest, but passable, but a closer inspection inside showed ragged pages, a cover untidily glued and ham-fisted stitching. As soon as was decent, I went home.

Over a reviving glass of wine that evening, I thought – yes, I learned a lot from the class. Not so much about bookbinding, although I did learn that it was not the doddle I had expected, but about myself – and others.

The day before I had run a writing seminar for the same community service. When I gave the participants an exercise to complete towards the end of the day, one of them said, “I’ve got writer’s block.” Get a life, I thought, although I did not articulate it. I have been teaching creative writing for over 25 years, and have always thought I understood the needs of adult learners, but now I had felt them. Absorbing new information over a whole day can be exhausting. I will never think get-a-life again.

Another important lesson was about the “kindness of strangers”. All my fellow classmates were willing to help the cack-handed, in much the same way as they might have offered help to the maimed. Nobody laughed at me, nobody sighed with exasperation when I asked, yet again, for help, and they all said my book, small though it was, was a good effort for a first time. I did not believe them, because the other first-timers’ books were far superior to mine, but it was generous of them to offer such positive feedback.

I realised also that I live almost entirely in my head. When I’m not writing, I’m reading; my relaxation consists of doing the code cracker, crosswords and learning to conquer cryptic crosswords. I resolved then to do more with my hands. There must be some benefit to the brain from using hand-eye co-ordination. Evidently this function is taken care of by the cerebellum, which is responsible for co-ordination and motor control. I am sure my cerebellum would be grateful for more regular workouts.

On further reflection it seems I am not the only writer who has developed a need – or is it an urge? – to get out of my mind. Kevin Ireland has taken to painting in oils. His self-portrait in a straw hat is wonderful. Rosemary McLeod has an interest in handcrafts; a writer friend spends some time during her week working with felt, another does pastel abstracts and yet another has taken up dancing. Where once we went to the gym to keep our bodies fit after hours sitting at the computer, now we are keeping our brains fit by using our hands and feet.

I don’t know if I will try bookbinding again. I would like to conquer it, but I got the CES brochure the other day, and there is a class advertised as “Working with Collage & Mixed Media”. Now how hard can that be? I’ll know by the middle of March.

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