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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #27 - Spring 1997
Contents of this Issue:


DavidHello again, and here's the Spring issue of 'Hyaku-nin Issho'. After the very busy 'finale' to last year's work, I have been enjoying a bit of a more relaxed pace the last couple of months, but I'm never too 'relaxed' to work on this newsletter. Readers' responses to the previous issue were very gratifying, and help very much to encourage me to continue with the work.

Readership of this newsletter has now reached just about 300 copies. I send it each time to everybody who has ever collected even one of my print sets; in my mind the order for one set of prints includes a complete set of 'Hyaku-nin Issho' - start to finish - to accompany it. I also send it on request to some people who have expressed deep interest in my project, but who are unable to collect the prints. And of course the newsletter is also a way to keep in touch with media people who are following this project.

It takes a lot of time, and it's quite expensive, but I'm in no doubt whatsoever that it is well worth it. 27 issues now! How did I ever find that much to say? And is there really anything left to say? Stay tuned ...

From Halifax to Hamura

I mentioned in the last issue that the busking 'work' lasted up until the weather became cold. But eventually I had to look around for some other way to earn the rent. In those days there was no big unemployment problem, and manual work of any kind was easy to be had. I registered with a 'labour exchange', and early each Monday morning would present myself at their office, where I would receive an assignment for the week. On Friday evening, after working for five days, I returned to the office to pick up the week's pay.

What kind of work? Well one week I operated a machine that stuck labels on wine bottles - another week I worked with a team arranging a furniture store display - one week I even got fired from the job on Monday morning! This was hod-carrying, and with my 120lb. body I should have known better than to even try that one ...

These things were all interesting, but as time passed by I had to try and get myself reoriented back towards the flute. Before going to England I had listened to recordings of many flutists, and had decided which one I thought was the 'best' - William Bennett, at that time principal flutist with the LSO, the London Symphony Orchestra. I was very shy though, and found it very difficult to find a way to meet him. But one day early that spring I summoned up my courage, and after looking up his London address in a directory somewhere, I put my flute under my arm, walked up his front steps, and rang the doorbell. He opened the door himself, and said, before I had a chance to speak, "Oh, I see you're a flutist. Come in!" I had barely got into the room when he reached out for my flute case, "This is a beautiful case. Did you make it? Will you make some for me? Come upstairs, and let me show you the workshop ..." It turned out that not only was he a top-class flute player, but he was very interested in the design of flutes, and had a little workshop up in his attic where he was busily trying to create an improved instrument. He had many ideas about how the flute could be improved, but his metal-working skills were pretty basic, and the instruments he had altered in his quest for better tuning were a bizarre patchwork of roughly soldered parts. Of course I was very interested in this, and it wasn't until after a couple of hours discussion of design theory that he got around to asking, "Well, I guess we should hear you play something ..."

Last time this had happened, I had been rewarded by seeing the listener's face light up when he heard me play, but this time was different. Bennett had a string of pupils, and they were England's best young players ... I couldn't help noticing his face fall a bit in disappointment the instant he heard my tone. But it did turn out to be a most interesting visit, and when I finally left a couple of days later to return to my own room (I slept on a couch at his place) I had his request to make a few flute cases for him.

This encounter had been at my instigation, but one I had sometime after this was pure chance ... I was having a meal one day in a small cafe, and noticed a young schoolgirl and her father who were sitting near me - she was carrying a flute case. I spoke to them, and learned something most interesting. He was interested in building a better flute for his daughter, but although he was a master metal worker (he was a tool-maker on the Concorde project), he didn't know much about flute design. Of course I expressed interest, and shortly after this I had an astonishing visit to his home. Astonishing for two reasons - one was the private tour he gave me of the factory where they were building the Concorde airliners, and the second the flute head joint that he built for me on his lathe ... while I watched! Well of course I 'm sure you know what the next step was ... to put these two men together. I arranged a meeting, and watched while the two of them started to put their knowledge together.

I wish I was able to tell you that the outcome of this collaboration was a revolutionary new flute design that swept the world, but actually I don't know what the outcome was - I wasn't there to see what followed. I had been keeping contact by letter with musical friends in Canada, and I received an offer of a job as an assistant teacher at a summer music camp back there. I had attended this camp as a student many times, and now jumped at the chance to return as an instructor. It was just a temporary job, and I was fully intending to get back to London when it was finished, but things took a rather different turn. There was a certain young lady at the camp that summer ... and this one wasn't made of silver keys and wooden body!

Collector Profile

Mr. Yamamoto Masakatsu

I first met Yamamoto Masakatsu two and a half years ago, at my first Osaka exhibition, where he ordered a complete set of my Hyaku-nin Isshu prints, and I heard from him then that he had a hobby, collecting items related to 'sugoroku', the Japanese term for what we in the west refer to as 'lotto' or the 'goose game'. It seemed mildly interesting, as some of the older items in his collection were made using the woodblock technique, giving it a connection with my own work. At that time, he suggested that I visit him sometime to see the collection, but ... Osaka is a long way away ... I have been very busy ... I put it out of my mind.

But this past February, when I was invited to Nagoya to speak at a forum taking place there, I took the opportunity to add an extra day to my travel schedule and drop in to see him at his home in Minoo, Osaka. The minute I entered the room that houses the collection, I realized that the 2-year delay had been a big mistake. What I saw there can be described with only one word - 'sugoi'!

Mr. YamamotoNow what can be so 'incredible' about a collection of children's lotto games? Is this really something worth an adult spending time on? And believe me, Yamamoto-san spends every waking minute that he's not at work (he is a dermatologist) in tending to his collection. But as I found out during the four hours or so that we sat there perusing some of the highlights of the vast collection, there is nothing childlike about it at all. As the beautifully carved and printed sheets piled up on the low table in front of me - hundreds and hundreds of them - a complete panorama of Edo period life paraded before my eyes. At a time when no television, newspapers or magazines existed to either inform or entertain people ... these sugoroku did both. The list of themes is endless: history, travel, kabuki, daily life, sex, religion ... it is all captured here in these sheets. Whether tattered cheaply printed rags - or beautifully produced art works, each of these prints has an interesting story to tell.

From floor to ceiling on every side, the room is jammed with drawers, shelves and cupboards. Each time Yamamoto-san thought of another interesting thing that I should see, he rolled aside one of the shelf units, rolled out of the way the huge cupboard that was thus exposed, and then finally unearthed the item and brought it out with a look of triumph in his eyes.

Some of the things in the collection are extremely rare - delicately printed woodblock books, board games that once belonged to a tonosama's daughter, original artwork by Tetsuka Osamu, early Chinese prints, painted scrolls ... Hour after hour the private 'exhibition' continued.

At this point, I wonder what kind of image of Yamamoto-san you have in your mind. All day at work, all evening buried in his own activities in his collection room, all his spare time and money being spent on his hobby ... This is not exactly the image of an ideal 'family man'. But after we had been in there for a few hours, his wife Takeko-san came in, and what I heard from her surprised me not a little. Her face was as bright and cheerful as his, as she described how, rather than following his hobby in isolation from his family, he was enjoying their support and assistance. She is working together with him on the huge process of creating a computerized database of the collection, is obviously happy to be the partner of a man who is enjoying his life so much, and she doesn't seem to begrudge either the time or the money he spends on this incredible project.

And now there is something that I would like to ask you readers of this little story. As vast as Yamamoto-san's collection is (more than 4500 sugoroku games, and more than 1400 books and related items), it can never be considered complete. He is endlessly seeking to add to it. Now I know that most of you who read this won't be likely to come across any Edo era sugoroku in your daily rounds, but he is after anything that has any connection at all to sugoroku. (I even noticed a 'Hello Kitty' children's book on one shelf ... no doubt containing an illustration of sugoroku somethere in it). If you see anything that you think may be of interest (a story in your local newspaper, a photo in a magazine, a dusty book in a used book shop), please drop him a postcard and let him know about it. Nothing is too big ... nothing is too small. You will be helping to make a very happy man just that little bit happier.

Exhibition Wrap-up

After doing it five times, setting up for the annual exhibition in the gallery at Shinjuku has become quite a routine job - the newest ten prints and essays go here, the pamphlets go there, and then the full collection of 80 prints goes on that wall over there. As we were hanging all those prints up on the wall this time though, I noticed that next year it's going to be a bit more difficult - I've pretty much filled up that space! But I'm sure that I'll find a way to organize things ...

Gallery view

The prints looked fantastic all arranged up on the wall. These exhibitions are the only chance that I get to see them all together, as just like most of you, in my own room I can only see my prints one by one. Every time I see them here in the gallery, I am struck again by how much the series has evolved over the eight years. Those first ones look like they were made by a different person! Actually, I suppose it was a different person - I can barely remember that guy ...

The media attention and attendance were about the same as last year, and most days there were plenty of visitors to keep me busy explaining and demonstrating. With the constant barrage of bad economic news that we read in the newspapers every day, I certainly hadn't been very optimistic about finding many new collectors, but I was surprised to find that there are still people interested enough in Hyaku-nin Isshu and my work to be willing to support this project. Something quite different about this year's group of new collectors is that most of them were not complete strangers but 1) were recommended by present collectors, 2) were readers of the 'Hyaku-nin Issho' newsletter, or 3) were former collectors who decided to re-start after earlier collecting one set (perhaps they were waiting until the prints got good enough ...!) Welcome everybody, and I hope you enjoy being part of this project.

Gallery viewA number of you have asked why I held only one exhibition this year and did not go to Osaka. There are a couple of reasons, the first of which is that I have been unable to find a gallery that is both pleasant, and large enough to display so many prints properly. But that's not really a good excuse, and I have to confess that another reason is that I found myself feeling somewhat uncomfortable during those two exhibitions that I did hold in Osaka. Ever since I came to Japan, people have been telling me that 'Kansai' people and 'Kanto' people are different, but I generally just shrugged at these stories - I didn't think that such differences would affect me; after reading my essays you know what I think about 'differences'!

But there really were some different aspects to the behaviour of exhibition visitors in Tokyo and Osaka, and because I have 'grown up' in Tokyo it is a bit difficult to get used to the Kansai way of doing things. The biggest problem for me was that where a typical Tokyo visitor after strolling around the gallery would almost inevitably say 'Thank you' to me before leaving (or at least would silently nod a farewell at the door), many Osaka people avoided doing this. They strolled around looking at the prints and reading the essays, then when they were ready to leave would slowly edge closer to the door, and when I was looking the other way, would quickly dash out avoiding any eye contact.

Speaking about this to friends later, I heard that this was simply because those people were slightly embarrassed to be leaving without buying any prints. It was easier for them to leave without any personal contact with me. But of course from my point of view, I would rather have had some small acknowledgement that they had enjoyed my work. I certainly don't expect every visitor to order prints; I'm quite content just to be showing them to people. But without any response at all from visitors about what they have seen, my pleasure disappears completely.

Gallery viewIf you are from Osaka and are reading this, please don't be upset with me. Perhaps I'm just being selfish. Probably it would be better if I just sat on a chair in one corner of the gallery reading a newspaper and ignoring the guests, and then enjoying special pleasure when somebody did express satisfaction about what they had seen.

And actually, even here in Tokyo, not everybody finds it easy to speak to me. One day during this year's exhibition, a gentleman came up to me, and without speaking gave me his 'meishi' and then disappeared. On the back he had written a small poem in Japanese:

Thank you sir!

Essay Corner

Wooden School

One building dominates the village, and it's the first thing that comes into view as the bus rounds the final turn, coming up the road from the city down on the coast. The road hugs one side of the valley, tight against the steep mountainside, and twists and turns, left and right, as it follows the contours, making its way past the wide rice fields waving under the summer sun.

The name of this village, where grandad grew up, is Ozato, 'big village', but this only makes sense in comparison to the tiny clusters of houses scattered here and there in corners of the long valley. There are only a few dozen houses even here, but as it sits roughly halfway between the river mouth at the bottom, and the final tiny hamlet up at the other end, it is a focal point of valley activity.

It was thus natural that the education authority should choose Ozato as the site for the valley middle school over 100 years ago, and it is the roof of this long low wooden building, standing on the mountainside at a slightly higher level than the village houses, that one sees from the bus.

Late the other day, out on a stroll with my two daughters in the early evening cool, we come up the hill towards this place. The wooden walls are a deep brown, mottled and stained over the decades, but still a rich colour, not bleached to a dull grey as are most of the old houses nearby. We cross the stony playground, climb the front steps, and find that not only do no locks keep us out, but there are not even any doors to block our access to the wooden hallway that runs the length of the building, off to our left and right.

Kicking off our shoes, we step up onto the dark, shiny wooden floor, and enter another world. I can think of no words more apt than that tired old phrase 'polished smooth by generations of feet', to describe this building. Not only the floors, but everywhere within reach has been rubbed until it actually glows in the late sunlight that streams horizontally through the front windows. The doorknobs, handrails, posts ... everything has a deep sheen like an old-master violin. How many hands have swung around this corner post here? How many feet have slid across this entranceway?

The three of us sit down in a row of students' desks. We disturb nothing, we just want to soak up a tiny bit of the ambience of this amazing place, but the light is fading rapidly now, so we quickly walk round the rest of the building. Everything brown. Golden brown everywhere, and burnished clean until it glows! As we leave and make our way homeward through the now darkened lanes of the village, that long row of windows behind us catches the last light, and reflects the glow of the evening sky. We are each silent with our own thoughts.

But now I have to confess that I have not been quite fair with you while writing this little story. I have used words like 'is', 'stands', and 'are', and oh how I wish that they were true! For these words are now lies, and had I been honest with you, I would have said 'was', 'stood', and 'were'. For this story was last year's story, and during the past winter, this magical building was replaced with a modern concrete structure.

I suppose the students are happy in their clean, bright, not to say warm classrooms. I suppose the insurance company is happy, secure in the knowledge that this building will not catch fire one cold night. I suppose the village parents are happy, knowing that their children have a facility the equal of those in the big cities.

But if everybody is so happy, then why are my eyes full of water?


If everything goes according to plan, I hope to have a bit of something different in the next issue of 'Hyaku-nin Issho'. I've asked a couple of guest writers to contribute a pair of short pieces. Usually everything in this newsletter is written in English first and then translated into Japanese, but I'm not sure which language these new contributions will be written in. Perhaps the two authors will send me a manuscript in English, perhaps Japanese. They are quite bilingual, much more so than I, and can read and write easily in whichever language they choose. They are not very experienced writers (after all they are only 12 and 14 years old), but I think that they will have interesting stories to tell us. I'm looking forward to reading them ...