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Review Round-up: Careless Talk and Knit the City


Careless Talk Costs Lives and Knit the City - two very similar looks at the role of public art, featuring artists separated by half a century.

The illustrations of Fougasse are instantly recognisable, which only gives some hint to what the 1940s must have been like, when every wall and magazine boasted his art. Careless Talk Costs Lives (2010) is James Taylor's examination of Fougasse's work, with a focus on the artist's role in the 'public information' sector. 

Fougasse (born Kenneth Bird - he used the pen name because of another Punch illustrator with the same surname) was a popular student, a staunch patriot and (as his work indicates) very soft-hearted. Almost an rugby international for Scotland, he was knocked unconscious after scoring a try. He was in World War I for a year, suffering severe back damage from a shell at Gallipoli. During his recovery, Fougasse rediscovered his talent for cartoons. Although he tried to become a writer, Fougasse instead became an artist.

By the mid-1930s, his wonderful style was in fast demand for advertisements, charity work and cartoons. When World War II broke out, Fougasse volunteered his services to the government, convincing the powers-that-be that humorous posters would have more impact than scary ones. From that generosity, the famous "Careless Talk Costs Lives" series was born.

Careless Talk Costs Lives is by no means a demanding read. Mr. Taylor has clearly researched Fougasse's life in detail, but prefers to leave the book's work to its many illustrations. Instead, the text (such as there is) largely focuses on the public response to Fougasse and the context of the posters. It also delves into more detail on Fougasse's theories of propaganda art, including his assertion that "humour aims at opening the mind... horror shuts your mind in self-defence." Mr. Taylor quickly reviews a few examples from both piles, but there's no question that this book agrees with Fougasse. 

This is terrific little tome - the word "charming" is hard not to overuse here. It doesn't pretend to be either a detailed biography or an in-depth critique of poster construction. Instead, it is 90-something pages of glorious Fougasse artwork and enough surrounding text to enhance the reader's appreciation of it. 

A completely different sort of public art is on display in Deadly Knitshade's Knit the City (2011). 

Knit the CityA bit of background: these folks are crazy. A wonderful, wonderful type of crazy. "Knit the City" are a collective of guerilla knitters who occasionally descend on public places and do adorable and squashy things to them. Initially (as documented in the early chapters of the book), Deadly Knitshade would just stalk around and put socks on things - lots of rails and poles and such got fuzzy stripes.

From there, the projects got more complicated and involved more naughty needles as the group expanded. A woolly web in the tunnels near Waterloo Station. A complete set of knitted, er, bits to match the old "Shillings and Farthings" rhyme... (the Vicar of St. Clements must have been charmed to find a stack of furry oranges on the door that morning). Twenty miles of tiny sheep. A pirate invasion (including Captain Cheesebeard, the best pirate ever). A suitably sweet Valentine's Day celebration that involved decking out Piccadilly Circus in happy hearts. 

The piece de fuzzy resistance is, of course, Plarchie. Plarchie is an enormous (10 meter, I believe) knitted squid, composed of shredded orange Sainsbury's bags. He's made numerous public appearances, but his debut was at the Natural History Museum, when the huggable tentacled horror draped himself across Charles Darwin and menaced visitors for days.

All these escapades are captured in Knit the City and retold in Ms. Knitshade's delightfully whimsical tone of voice. There's no moaning or self-aggrandizing about the days of effort that must have gone into each stunt, just a cheerful recap of the whatknitted and a bevy of photos illustrating the work and the delighted faces of passersby. This book is adorable and should be in everyone's (striped/squid-patterned/pirate) stocking for the holidays.

Knit the City also, for the artistically inclined, includes two patterns - a tiny finger-fightin' squid and a square sheep. Both of them make me do eyes like this: OO. Embarrassing cooing noises may also be involved. Like Careless Talk Costs Lives, Knit the City isn't a serious work of critical content - it is a joyous collection that captures otherwise lost moments of art and charm. Fougasse would undoubtedly be proud of Ms. Knitshade's efforts - they evidence all the public spirit, good humor and warmth that he stressed in his own work as well.

If you're interested in social knitting, check out the Stitch London group. The Whodunnknit website also has a gallery of yarnstorming successes, patterns and other fun. Highly recommended for woolly charm.