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The Dancer and the Drum

posted on 25 Apr 2017

The Dancer and the Drum by Bruce Johns

The first thing to say is that this is a book that is a  lovely thing  to read because it is printed on a sumptuous creamy paper and scattered with well- produced illustrations, many in colour. Since this turns out to be a family saga about people involved in the printing trade, this attention to detail seems even more appropriate. I also very much like the way that the chapters and subheadings are organised because they also help to give the book a very pleasing, gentle pace and rhythm.

It is no mean feat to write such an ambitious piece of social history that spans time and geography yet stays centred on the fascinating puzzle of the author’s growing self- awareness and his relationship with his much missed father. What makes this story so engaging is that, from the outset, he speaks directly to the reader about his misgivings in digging into the past. I have always thought that the meticulous research for such a project must be exhausting and often disappointing but  Bruce Johns is on a determined quest to learn more about his ancestors and he is helped in this endeavour by being able to pick up the threads of what proved to be his own father’s sometimes inaccurate research on the subject.

This book has been a long time in the making as it has taken the author forty years to find time and space to do the necessary research and then to find a way to write about it. The story begins with the untimely death of his father, aged just sixty five. This is something that the author is completely unprepared for but the extent to which the event affects him takes some time to realise:

 ‘I was twenty seven years old and as far as my heart was concerned, a lifelong shirker of feeling, this was the first thing that had ever happened’.

As with many fathers and sons, they had rubbed along reasonably well over the years with the usual irritations on both sides, but after his death he was distressed at how little he really knew about him:

‘How life had moulded him, whether he regretted anything; what his thoughts were about me in all important respects, he was an enigma, a much- loved book that rarely submitted to being opened’.  

Along with his own father’s writing, he is also inspired to write this book by a memoir written by his ancestor John Myhill Johns plus plenty of family documents and photographs and, he notes, ‘We are, for people of no consequence, well provided for with relics.’

These include four intriguing family portraits that have been hanging on the wall in his childhood home for as long as he can remember. Later in the book, he spends some time speculating about these individuals and attempting to create their worlds, rather like a detective piecing together various fragments of a case. This mix of speculation and knowledge of relevant historical context is the method that he eventually settles upon to tackle what is a very complicated task and I think it serves him very well. He realises that he can bring individual family members to life by drawing on information about people who probably lived very similar lives. After all, unless one comes from the aristocratic class it is unlikely that there would be much reliable information available. As he is an experienced academic historian, he certainly knows how to plod his way painstakingly through records of all shapes and sizes, a process that he finds leads to several dead ends. But he shares this frustration candidly with the reader so that we feel reassured that his method is the right one.

The first part of his research required him to travel back to Redruth in Cornwall which is where records of his family originated as far back as the seventeenth century. He is particularly keen to track down the roots of an ancestor, William Johns, probably born in 1753, a man who eventually left Redruth to live in London. He paints a rich picture of his social circumstances by providing the reader with plenty of interesting background to the tin mining industry that defined that area of Cornwall. Here, he acknowledges, the fictional world of Winston Graham’s  Poldark novels give him a way of invoking the landscape and people:

 ‘a plausible conjuring of the past that keeps the thigh slapping and bosom heaving to a minimum. Everything is here: adventurers and capitalists, accidents underground, the poverty, piety and grog.’  

As a book lover, I am delighted to find that throughout The Dancer and the Drum, these and other literary references are well used to help us find our way into unfamiliar territory.

William marries and later travels to make a new and eventually better life in London with his family. The youngest of his eight surviving children is Richard Johns, whose life gives a sharper focus for the subsequent story. He also provides the link to the drum of the title as he probably took his grandfather’s drum with him as a memento of his childhood and Cornish ancestry. He may also have been a boy soldier himself, although this is speculation.

The relocation of the family to the Seven Dials area in south London is brought to life with plenty of Dickensian references and I found this part of the book really engaging. Progress is still limited in terms of finding evidence for where his ancestors may have lived but the author is encouraged by how improvements to public records contribute to fleshing out the existing sketchy memoir by his ancestor.  This leads to a particularly fascinating section about the history of the early printing trade and how Richard was probably engaged in the production of a variety of commercial leaflets and cards. 

What makes this well -crafted book stand out is that it is such a clever blend of historical detail, anecdote and reflection. The author takes us with him every step of the way when he finds echoes of his father in unexpected places as he finds out about his ancestors and their lives. As the story unfolds he also reveals much about himself and his own difficulties with coming to terms with grief. The process is unashamedly cathartic and is full of melancholy that is tempered by flashes of humour and self- deprecation.  I am pleased to tell you that the postscript promises a sequel that will pick up the threads of the saga and tell us more about the elusive dancer of the title:

‘I have not got round to researching that period yet and am a little short on detail; but one way or another she has lived with me for years as a figure or figment from our family’s past. It should not be difficult to summon her now, to set her before you as someone less rounded than a certainty, more substantial than a ghost’.

Karen Argent

April 2017