A little gem

There are risks attached to retrofitting a contemporary cultural category to historical phenomena that preceded it by some margin, but in the case of the Artists’ Book, as I have already shown in Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book (Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2015), there is a dividend too; namely looking with a fresh pair of eyes, and unsettling the canon. Unshelfmarked not only attacked any sort of foundationalist, a priori claims about the identity of the artists’ book, but also by creating a new timeline for the AB, embraced the Palaeolithic right up to the super modern, including burin engraving, illuminated manuscript, commonplacing, early modern conceptual writing, livres d’artistes, the photobook, fanzines and twitter etc. For as Kathleen Walkup has remarked “Hampton files the artist’s book in an ‘ecosystem’ that ranges from tramp art to pooh sticks via hopscotch, sewing bees, football fanzines and ‘rubbish of every kind’”. In short my rogue thesis disproved the prevailing idea that the AB as a democratic form only came into existence after WW2 (though clearly the tools of the digital revolution have supercharged design methods and parameters, accessibility and market share), throwing a huge wrench into the way its primary theoreticians conceived, categorised and created their fiefdoms, for this most contested and multiplex of interdisciplinary novelties.
Since 2015, critical responses to Unshelfmarked have varied from misunderstanding, indifference bordering on neglect, even such 1960s jive talk as “out there”, from one respected bibliophile, while my mother refers to it as “that book”, as if a grimoire laced with evil! Yet it turned out that the AB was less a bridge between the adjacent blocs of Literature and Visual Art, than an archipelago waiting subliminally to be discovered, with its very own flora and fauna. However in Unshelfmarked I did not approach this terra incognita as an explorer planning conquest and colonisation —worse still genocide— although as the actual subject of this post is a small, hitherto ignored (save by military historians) publication that grew to maturity during the Great War, then vanished, slaughter on an industrial scale does provide a bloody context.
Started in 1915 from their base in Eastbourne, The Peeko Journal was the in-house organ of ‘P’ Company of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and very much an “opuscule” rather than an “opus” to apply Anne Moeglin-Delcroix’s excellent litmus test, ie was quarto sized, visiotextual, small run doctor’s waiting-room lit, with a coterie of dedicated reading soldiery, a cousin to the better known, unofficial trench newspapers, fated to end up in latrines, such as Whizzbang and The Wipers Times. Price 1d, the first page of Issue 1 carried a trade ad for luminous dial wrist watches, an editorial by Sergeant G.T.Barry printed alongside sub-Kipling barrack room verse, advice for NCOs on bad feet, lost buttons, and how to wrap a puttee correctly! There were parish pump notices about band practice, whist drives and a theatre review of the debonair Charles Hawtrey in The Compleat Angler at the Winter Garden, and a regular slot by Pea-Nuts of Readers Digest-like quips (later replaced by the equally droll Snowball, for pseudonyms were common in trench papers due to the ever present threat of censorship). Naturally sport occupied the back pages, and Peeko gave a recommend to the White Corner Tea Rooms. Issues 2 and 3 variously had gripes about blisters, Christmas Day, with plenty of rude Woodbines and beer Tommy humour, courtesy of hut representatives. By Issue 4 team photos of officers and NCOs from the Western Front started to appear, but there was still space for a pen and ink drawing or two and some corny music hall jokes. By Issue 8 the price had doubled, and we get the first mention of Bruce Bairnsfather’s comical character Old Bill, the Peeko band, and a report on indoor cricket, mixed up with commercial ads for Horlicks and Atora beef suet. Number 13 contained a charming page of Mallarméan line drawings of mufflers, eg the Norwegian, Pierrot, the Fez, à la Pork Pie, and Belgian Militaire. From Issue 16, which is bigger and better —the RAMC’s training centre had moved up country to Ripon— the Peeko has enough of a readership to warrant Answers to Correspondents, reports of boxing and football matches, plus goonish quips such as “Why is ‘P’ Company like a new rifle? Because it has a good magazine”, with an ad for Cavender’s Army Club cigarettes. After Issue 18, the journal was incorporated into The Wit, still with light features like Pepys at Parades and Corps Crackers, though inevitably the tone had changed through time from war as a lark, to a far darker mood expressed through stoical khaki proverbs and an Agony Column, as casualty lists grew in the latter part of the Great War.
The non-profitmaking Peeko came out at irregular intervals, sometimes weekly, at others fortnightly, depending on cashflow, and was a veritable jamboree bag of earthy material; not quite samizdat, but decidedly irreverent and class conscious all the same. So, why lump it together with, what has come to be widely recognised by experts as a discrete category, Artists’ Books? Simply put, because it meets the loose criteria I attempted to tabulate in Unshelfmarked, part of an expanded field or para library, “a sprawling dynastic tree with multiple genealogies and offshoots” as Gill Partington has put it. During the four years that it took to research, data manage and write, some books and bibliobjets talked to me as if in a scéance, awaiting rescue in some cases, re-evaluation in others. The Peeko Journal was not one of these at the time, but a subsequent post hoc ergo propter hoc example, enlisted to support my theoretical position, another example of retrofitting the overlooked, to demonstrate the AB, despite the application of brand new software programmes enhancing both production and dissemination, is NOT a separate species, but an extraordinary ongoing mutation and vector, its contemporary practitioners the multi-tasking stationers of the twenty-first century.
The Peeko Journal: a little gem reconceived.

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