“we recognised it, because it was us” — silvine originalsBack
Children from schools all across the town gathered in the Sunday School at the top of our street, a hymn’s length from the Market Square, to sing a song a local man had written, called Otley Children. To sing about the river flowing through the town, about the Chevin hills all around, because that’s where we live: Yorkshire children; Otley children.
We still remember the words, a quarter of a century later; we still remember that recording was interrupted because an aeroplane, landing at Leeds Bradford Airport, had roared onto the tape from overseas. On top of the Chevin hills, the airport was one of the few where Concorde could — and did — land, subsonically subdued, floating past the church spire.
That was, and is, Otley, we guess; parish-proud, artistically spirited, a market town and an industrial town. Above the church yard wall, when you took the path from the back of Kirkgate Arcade, after marvelling at all the cassette recorders in Bek’s Electrical’s, was always a small blue scrapyard crane, untidy and town central behind the trim pubs and businesses.
It’s the town where the printing press took its first major step forward since Gutenberg, thanks to David Payne; it’s where Thomas Chippendale, eighteenth century furniture designer, was born and educated. Prince had his UK fan club there. There’s a carnival every summer, a vintage transport fair in autumn, a Victorian fayre in winter, an agricultural trade show; and more pubs than a town its size ought to need, except when market days would empty the towns all around into Otley and fill the pubs all up. The River Wharfe and its weir used to turn the wheel of an enormous paper mill in the middle of the town; and tight among the nearby terraced streets, William Sinclair & Sons, Stationers, still turn out thousands of school exercise books every day.
They make other things too. Raffle tickets, account books, scrapbooks, invoice books; all the paper things you don’t realise you need until you need them; things that, as you flick through Sinclairs’ enormous catalogue, you marvel that people use. South of the river but north of the maypole, the streets are a grid of secret dead ends and allotments, and you don’t notice the factory unless you look for it; the main entrance is a door not much bigger than the front doors of the houses a bit further down the terrace. But you distinguish between them because Sinclairs’ doors, window frames, drainpipes, gutters and ironworks are all painted Sinclairs blue, and when you know that, that’s when you notice the factory and how many of these stone and brick buildings, and the bridge above your head that crosses the street, are part of the factory. Then, through the odd open window, you hear the controlled clatter of the presses as they mark up all the different kinds of pages and staple them for exercise books and jotter books and order books and more.
It’s all this noise. It’s a sleepy town, with cats in windows, real ones and porcelain ones, but there’s all this noise: the singing, the aeroplanes, the factories, the carnivals, the river, the pubs.
David Thomas Broughton is from here, and there’s a documentary about him and his music now, and there might be more Otley in the music that he has made than we had thought about before. These were, we think, his streets; at First School, he was either the year above us or below, and we think his was the house just down from Sinclairs, with the front privet hedge that was always trimmed into the shape of a steam train.
We don’t remember David Thomas Broughton from school, but we do remember him onstage during his early gigs at The Packhorse in Leeds, where he brought an acoustic guitar, an array of noisy electronic toys, and a board of loop pedals. We remember the way he made a song happen piece by piece, picking abstractions from his guitar and looping them for melody; tapping morseness on the guitar body and looping that for the beat; grinding the microphone into the room’s aley air and looping that, for texture; pressing buttons on a Konami game and looping that, for unexpected sadnesses. Waiting for David Thomas Broughton to build a song was like sitting by a river, waiting for the flotsam to form a shape; while an industrial printing press roars its ink tattoos in your left ear, and a carnival tumbles through narrow streets somewhere to your right. Ready, David would cut the tune he’d made with lyrics that rhymed ‘pasty from the Gregg’s bakery’ with ‘taxi from Otley to Leeds’ across verses, sung with the false falsetto of a chastised choirboy, giving in slightly but still determined to take the piss.
It’s good that there’s a documentary about David Thomas Broughton now, because some of his performances stand out in the memory — Leeds and Barcelona — and on Vimeo all the time (for TV2, in Spain) as some of the most haunting, fragile, aggressive and captivating we’ve ever seen, and more people should know about that.
And while we don’t remember him at First School, we do remember and maybe he remembers being sent when sick to the nurse’s room, a stock cupboard with a sofa, where the crisps were kept, where sick as we were we would gaze up at boxes of Seabrook’s booty; maybe he was mystified too by Scarborough Road being nearby but in the wrong town; maybe he remembers Crabtree Vickers’ factory, where they made printing presses, being demolished and burning down in the process, where Waitrose is now. It was built to be a Safeway then, and we all had a tour when it opened.
Ponderosa Group’s offices are in the other direction from the school and Crabtree Vickers Waitrose Safeway, and from our old house, in a direction we wouldn’t have walked when small. There’s an inevitable pub on the junction, a curve of terraced houses, and a crevice of road, cramped and mysterious, down which you reach Pegholme Mill at Wharfebank Business Centre. Or you can come from the other direction, just off the bypass that was built on the railway bed; our dad ran with many other mums and dads along the bypass as part of its grand unveiling, before cars were allowed.
When we visited we came from the bypass, a group of cyclists sat on a patch of grass at the entrance, enjoying packed lunches on a sunny day. We found Ponderosa Group on Pegholme Mill’s top floor. They work on brand development, and are of Leeds but not in its centre (although they’re LS21, so there are plenty more postcodes before Ilkley); but previously they’ve matched campaigns for Crabbie’s Ginger Beer, for example, to work by Hungry Sandwich Club and Matthew The Horse, so their Leeds bones are fide.
But Otley is also in their bones, and so they know what all this means. And when, researching the archive of William Sinclair & Son’s Stationers as part of a project for a new line of artist’s sketchbooks, they recognised the Silvine trademark, they knew what that meant, too. And when they tried out some of that archive on the public via Instagram and Twitter, they caused a pause in the hearts of many who saw the Silvine script and laurels, maybe for the first time in years, printed in black on a depthy red book cover, and remembered: the exercise books at school. The memo books our mum had for shopping lists. The notebooks next to the till in the shops. The black outlining rectangle on the cover that contained the word that announced what each book did in bold black capitals: EXERCISE. MEMO. NOTE.
Our first sight, on Instagram, was a madeleine; Silvine, which we’d never really forgotten, once remembered, felt like part of us that had returned to us; seeing a photo of an old exercise book, of the blue-painted factory in the middle of the town, was like finding an album of childhood photos we didn’t know had been taken. We recognised it, because it was us.
But its power wasn’t only nostalgic. We are, or at least try to be, grown up now; and we have, or like to think we have, tasteful opinions about elegance and utility and how design can serve them both. Those block announcements on the cover? Gill Sans, or near as dammit, and very contemporary. And the logo; that trademark doesn’t only evoke memories, but appreciation, because it’s exceptionally good. You could not hope to design such a timeless brand if you poured all your taste and training into the task today; you could only hope to do something nearly as good, or cmd-Q Adobe Creative Suite every night in frustration until you got somewhere close.
Unless, like Ponderosa, you uncovered it in the archive of the stationers down the road, and realised its potential. Uncovered might be the wrong word; Silvine has never actually gone away. Shortly after discovering the Instagram account, we went on a hunt to Ryman’s, in the Merrion Centre, and the shelves looked different now; and filed away in a section separate to all the Moleskines, Oxfords, Rhodias, in with the raffle tickets and account books, were bright red Silvine memo books and cash books; plus, over in the school supplies section, were five-packs of different coloured school exercise books (with a free sticker sheet of gold stars); Silvine branded, sure, but on the back, using an anonymous in comparison design born of a modernising need early in the twenty-first century.
Silvine was essentially what it always was; a low cost line of utility notebooks with the same classic appearance, but bearing signs of how the cost-effective digital printing methods of today have lost some of the qualities that made the original versions so charming. As Ponderosa’s artistic director, Karen Wood, ransacked the factory archive to trace the brand and production history, she also ransacked the memories of the latest of six generations of Sinclairs to have worked there, finding the source of and reason behind each modernising decision, reconnecting with neglected techniques, materials and ideas, and giving them a new context, outside the mass market of low-cost necessity books, but square in the desires of those people scouring Ryman’s, and Colours May Vary and Fred Aldous, for their Moleskines, Oxfords, Rhodias.
And after a little gentle persuasion from Paul Alexander, Ponderosa’s Creative Director (“They didn’t call us back about it for six months, and I was gutted”), and guided by the sensibilities of Karen (“I’d never designed one notebook before, never mind a range, so I’ve had to learn all this from the guys at the factory”), Sinclairs collaborated with Ponderosa to make something new, but like what they used to make, that is something like what they’ve always made, rediscovered.
Hours were spent refining to find the original shade of Silvine red, and perfecting the tactile ridging of the covers that makes them zip-noisy under a fingernail; sourcing a less brazen, off-white paper stock, from a mill that has supplied Sinclairs for its own six generations; changing the ruled lines back from cold grey to cool blue, with a pink margin, and less rigid measurements; deciding on the sizes and styles, each based on an original from the archive, each interrogated for its uses then, its uses now.
And then they made them, and they called them Silvine Originals. And they started showing them to people. Some people, like Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs, have been using Silvine notebooks anyway, for set-lists and lyrics; when he gets these, he’ll get it. Others will be reminded, like we were, and be desperate for the day when, bored in a meeting, they can casually start building a song with a fingernail scratch on the back of a notebook cover. Others will not have seen a single Silvine notebook in their lives before, but will see these, and see that they are good.
And that’s good, that the traditions and styles and qualities that established a humble line of notebooks in the hearts of generations as they grew up should be restored, because some traditions are good, and are still useful now. In Otley, it’s a tradition at Easter for an enormous wooden cross to be carried aloft on shoulders from the town to the top of the Chevin. We don’t know if that’s a useful tradition, but it’s something we’re glad goes on. And we’re glad to have written these words in a Silvine notebook we’re glad to have back. Now, to type them up, on a laptop computer we’re fortunate to have, but maybe not as glad.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 37