It was Oxford based artist Stella Shakerchi who came up with the idea of hanging a collection of book cover design in the Albion Beatnik Bookstore windows, and the shop exhibition this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks running throughout May is entitled 50 Shades of Re(a)d. The exhibition is a serendipitous selection of fifty books, each of the book covers depicted by Stella in crayon, paint, collage, as seemed suitable or whatever came to mind. The selection is subtitled an attempt to curate a vital book collection, and this accompanying booklet catalogues this choice with a little bit of trivial and textual description, or is perhaps a guilty justification for each title’s inclusion. Not that you have to justify a selection of books ever, and nor should such a collection ever be assembled in a hierarchical fashion, for reading is the most democratic of all art forms. For sure the true reader is schizophrenically promiscuous and desultory, and at the same time is an autodidact, possibly in love childishly with both listing in alphabetical or sequential order and also listing to one side with his or her bias or preference. So it is then that this selection is based on hunch and whimsy rather than any valid assessment backed up with footnote, index or annotation.
How to bring these titles together was a challenge, to make sense of what could only ever be a disparate selection. My thoughts turned first to the English Test cricket team (netball the sport for ladies, I guess), and then came to mind my memories of Alec Bedser, a much maligned figure of my youth whose task it was as a once great cricketer and as chairman of the Test team selection committee to appease at all times the county cricket circuit, the press, the public, and take note of the current form of cricketers, both parvenu and practised veteran, and come up with a well drilled and, most importantly, well balanced Test team. His appearances on television made him look shifty, as though he couldn’t be trusted; in fact he couldn’t be, and he never made a good fist of his job. This lodestar of failure gets my approval and he has become my role model. Do you choose the man of the moment or do you go for the confirmed batsman with a pedigree of run scoring, even if he is a bit rusty and old hat? One flash century in July does not a summer make, of course, and the problems of choosing any list includes all sorts of compromise, heartache and inconsistency.
The number three in the batting order was the crux of all teams. First wicket down had to be padded up from the off and be versatile enough to take the shine of the new ball if an early wicket fell, or to kick start an accumulation of a serious score once lunch on the first day had been negotiated. But this was the easiest choice in my literary Test team, for it had already been made: Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs choice of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare were the ideals of Ken Barrington and Colin Cowdrey rolled in to one, dour defence and graceful stroke play, and not much sense starting elsewhere.
Categories of books have been constructed, roughly in shape with a particular stage of one’s life, from the nappy littered years of babyhood, the hunt-for-the-kiss sodden years of adolescence, maturity, contrasting moods and emotion, midlife crises, empire building, and the final decline and its denouement. Only two books (other than my foundation of two) date from the nineteenth century. Random as a blunderbuss, choice dispersed like confetti at a wedding, senseless and never thought through.
Similarly, and depending on her mood of genre, I guess, Stella’s artwork can sometimes be a bit far flung. At times kitsch and tawdry (generally too many fairies and Xmas tree lights), at times a bit Buddhist (Kabbalah littered with higher ways and elevating thoughts that resemble dinner table place mats or constipated Buddha-like figures), and at times typically it is festooned with animals, usually dogs or cats, though the odd leprechaun doesn’t go amiss. How it is that a unicorn gets on to the front cover of her Bible is anybody’s guess… Tut, tut.