An interview

Why Rhubarb Pyjamas?

I don’t think it really mattered what I called the blog, it would become whatever I named it. Before you name something it’s a bit of an enigma, a nothing, once you put words on it, it gets pinned down, but in turn the thing you name changes the meaning of the words.

For example, think of someone you know with a really common name, then think of someone else who also has that name.  Each of those people give the same name a different flavour.  Words need context.

Rhubarb Pyjamas is nonsensical at first, but they’re comforting things, and they’re ordinary things.  I needed to anchor myself in the everyday.  I could have called the blog Ethereal Wasteland which also sounds nice, but then I probably would have blown away on a cloud of vagueness. Continue reading

Main Catalogue text

There’s a story that Pliny tells about the Corinthian potter Butades, and his daughter Kora. Kora’s lover is about to leave her for a time, and she is compelled to capture his silhouette. This story is used by Pliny to describe the origins of painting and of relief sculpture (Kora’s silhouette is then appropriated by Butades as he presses clay to it and turns it into something else), but it is also, more obviously, a story about drawing. Moreover it is a story about traces, shadows and haunting. What Kora does is depict something that is fleeting and distorted, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. In order to do so she must turn her back on her lover while he is still present, and reduce him to an outline. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. The very act of drawing his shadow is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence.

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Parallel Text (from MFA catalogue)

Having heard, for the first time, that my adventures have been doubted, and looked upon as jokes, I feel bound to come forward and vindicate my character for veracity, by paying three shillings at the Mansion House of this great city for the affidavits hereto appended.  

This I have been forced into in regard of my own honour, although I have retired for many years from public and private life; and I hope that this, my last edition, will place me in a proper light with my readers.

– R. E. Raspe

Singular travels, campaigns and adventures of Baron Munchausen



The Marquis de Sade, an infamous French aristocrat, spent just over a decade in the 1780s imprisoned on charges related to his violent sexual fantasies. He was held at the Chateau de Vincennes and the Bastille before finally being transferred to the insane Asylum at Charenton.

While imprisoned de Sade wrote the novella Justine. It tells the story of a girl who is orphaned at the impressionable age of twelve, when she and her older sister Juliette must learn to make their own way in the world. After they part company Juliette is quickly corrupted, but becomes worldly and is ultimately rewarded with riches and happiness. Justine, determined to be virtuous, is subjected to a series of misfortunes, betrayals and assaults. She is briefly reunited with her sister before she is eventually stuck by lightning and dies.

After the French Revolution de Sade enjoyed ten years of freedom, but 1800 would be his last; the following year Napoleon ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and de Sade was returned to Charenton asylum where he died in 1814.

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When I first excitedly told Julie about my initial investigation into the pilcrow, she smiled, knowingly, and said, “Oh it’s one of your rabbit holes.” In the two years of supervising me in the MFA programme she’s probably quite accustomed to my crazed enthusiasms, certainly enough to recognise them as the rabbit-holes I follow in the hopes of glimpsing that elusive Wonderland.  There’s been many an occasion where I’ve told her that although I don’t know what it means yet, I’ve stumbled upon another morsel, a little something, like a trail of breadcrumbs.

I like things that have a story, or history, but one that points in many directions. I like things that are suggestive, or secret, unknown, or invisible.  The things I collect are things that could just be ordinary, except there is something that makes them not… they glow with an unacknowledged importance, an unrevealed significance; they whisper to me, and ask me to recognise them.

I found the pilcrow by accident, which is to say, it has been there before me, unnoticed, until suddenly it wasn’t.  And if you are unfamiliar with the word ‘pilcrow’ don’t worry, I was completely in the dark too.  It’s a typographical symbol, which you may well recognise even if you don’t know what to call it, as I didn’t initially (it’s an interesting task googling something you don’t know the name of, but the internet will find it for you eventually).

The pilcrow is this:

Yes, it’s that handy little symbol you can find when you’re word-processing and you need to figure out how many spaces you’ve put in and where.  With the click of a button it can appear and disappear.  Now you see it, now you don’t. Hey presto, abracadabra!

I loved it for its beautiful vanishing act, but I loved it even more when I researched further. By far the best source of information I found was Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The secret life of punctuation, symbols & other typographical marks (I requested it from the public library and showed so much nerdy excitement about reading it that I completely bewildered the librarian I picked it up from: “Well, I guess if you’re into that sort of thing” she’d said, smiling politely but dubiously).

The pilcrow is not a mere typographic curiosity, useful only for livening up a coffee-table book on graphic design or pointing the way to a paragraph in a mortgage deed, but a living character with its roots in the earliest days of punctuation. Born in ancient Rome, refined in medieval scriptoria, appropriated by England’s most controversial modern typographer, and finally rehabilitated by the personal computer, the pilcrow is intertwined with the evolution of modern writing. It is the quintessential shady character.

(Houston, 2013, p. 3).

From Houston’s book I learned that the pilcrow evolved from a C (which stood for capitulum) that indicated the beginning of a section or chapter. The ornamentation of the C over time slowly turned it into the pilcrow symbol (Houston, 2013, p. 13).

During the Middle Ages, when monastic scribes were reproducing handwritten scriptures, the pilcrow was considered special enough that it was added subsequently by a specialist rubricator (who inked the headings and initial letters and so on in red). So the scribe would ink all the black parts, the main text block, but left spaces where the red characters could be added (p. 14).

Later when the printing press was invented, the pilcrow was still important enough that it was added in by hand, the type-setters would leave a space for it just as the scribes did.  Only this is where the pilcrow began to vanish.  The rubricators just couldn’t keep up with the pace of the press, and so the convention became that a paragraph is indicated with a blank space or an indent… an empty place that was waiting for a never-to-be-added pilcrow (p. 16).

The pilcrow indicates a transition of ideas, so it could be said to be symbolic of a shift in direction, or new thought, perhaps even a revelation. But its function is that of separating paragraphs, so maybe it more aptly symbolises a brief pause, a breath, the heartbeat before the punchline.

From its heyday of being highlighted in red, the pilcrow is now spectral. It has a position, but that position is filled with a blank. It haunts the spaces in-between. It may just be the ultimate rabbit-hole.