Recently I’ve been thinking about cutting/editing and scars/memories. In two linked pieces for the BMJ Medical Humanities blog, I take a look at my own relationship first with knives and cutting and then with scars and memories.
Part one: Knives and cutting
Among my clearest memories of childhood are strong sensory images of my father sharpening the carving knife each Sunday morning. He had an old bone-handled carver with a steel blade worn concave by years of service and he would stand at the kitchen worktop with the carving knife in his right hand and a cylindrical steel in his left, dancing the two metals together in front of him. The scraping and clashing were scary and magical – scary because of the glint of bright metal as the cutting edge became sharper, magical because this ritual heralded the final preparations for Sunday roast lunch. My father was always totally absorbed in the activity, pausing occasionally only to test the blade on the thumb of his left hand. In fifteen or more years, I just once saw him draw his own blood. He was an expert, and maintaining the tool of his Sunday task was a source of pleasure and satisfaction.
My father was a papermaker by trade and the plentiful currency of paper in our home had imbued me with a love of the material as I grew up. His passion for sharp knives must also have lodged in me. I put the two together, and for eight years of my life I sharpened blades and used them, in my first career as a fine bookbinder. I had many blades to look after, each one essential to my craft.
The guillotine blade was curved and heavy and the length of a sabre. It had to be removed from the work bench every few months to be sharpened professionally. I can still hear the decisive clunk as the newly honed and reinstalled blade sliced down through mill board.
Then there was my binder’s knife, a workaday tool of raw steel with a wooden handle darkened by my sweat. I used it for cutting against a rule. Over time the blade was thinned by sharpening until it became my ideal flexible knife. Just standing and thinking with it in my hand was almost enough to effect a precise cut. It was the first blade I worked each morning on the oiled carborundum stone. I had Stanley knives too of course, and penknives, and scalpels.
When I began work on a leather binding, it was the blade of my spoke-shave that needed attention. The spoke-shave is used for removing areas of the underside of the goat or calf skin, thinning the soft tissue before it is wetted and pasted for moulding around the prepared book block. Once I had chosen the right skin, I would dismantle the spoke-shave and take out the piece of flat steel with its cutting edge angled at 45 degrees. Back at the carborundum stone, I pushed the blade to and fro. Then I reassembled the tool, clamped the leather to a paring stone, and shaved the underside of the skin away from my body, always out and away. The flesh came off in soft rolls of colour until the leather had well-defined thin areas where it would be required to mould across joints, where corners could be mitred and edges turned.
There was another knife – a bone-handled kitchen knife with a tame blade and rounded tip. I used it for cutting gold leaf on a suede cushion. The gold-knife had at all times to be completely free of grease, as did the cushion, or the gold leaf would adhere where it should not. I used to sharpen the fine edge of my gold-knife with glass-paper. I enjoyed laying out the gold from its square tissue-leaved book by blowing one edge of a square of gold across the blade, lifting the leaf slowly on the knife and placing it on the gold cushion. With my mouth positioned over the centre of the leaf, I whistled silently to flatten it across the suede.
When I was ready to lay the gold on the leather binding, I would pick up small sections of gold leaf using greased cotton wool and dab the gold down onto the leather. Now to strike with the hot brass tools! If the flour paste and egg glair in the blind tooled indents had just the correct tackiness, the gold would fuse with the grain of the leather while the smooth surface of the brass tool simultaneously polished it. All this happened, if it was going to, in a second.
The daily ritual of sharpening also honed my senses and my purpose: the work was to measure and cut, fit and cut and refit, mould and fit. I was trained with the motto: ‘Measure twice, cut once’. The blades were extensions of my hands and mind. I cut into animal skins and dressed books in them. I cut gold and tooled it onto the leather. I fitted things to other things, making sense of disparate parts. By the end, if the knives had been sharp and my work skilled, most of the preparation was invisible – pages turned freely, boards opened well along joints, the book had the correct gravity. The mitred corners were so well-judged that they were flat under the thumb. All the cutting and making actions came together in one object. The binding was sensuous in the hands, pleasing to the eye.
It was years after I sharpened my knives for the last time and ceased working as a bookbinder that I fully realized how writing and editing are also ways of shaping and cutting, re-forming reality. It is all craft. And – here I come to the links with medicine – it is a surgeon’s work. The very word surgery comes originally from the Greek kheirourgia (kheir meaning hand + ergon meaning work) – the etymology from the Greek having more to do with art, handwork and finesse than with cutting. So I was and remain a kind of surgeon – I have worked with the anatomy of books and with animal skins, and I now work with texts of many kinds.
All writers take things in hand. We work, alter, reshape and adapt them. We cut away diseased, superfluous or useless parts, connect ideas to one another. And as we do our hand work we attempt to make whole, to heal, the body of text on which we are focused.