Weaving a tale of poignancy

John Craske was a Norfolk fisherman born in 1881. In 1917 he fell seriously ill with a mysterious condition which left him in an intermittent ‘stuporous state’ for the rest of his short life.

In 1925, he felt a sudden urge to start painting, and from then on he spent all his lucid moments covering every surface he could find with pictures of boats and his beloved East Anglian coastline.

Later, when he was too ill to stand and paint, he took to embroidery and crafted many fine marine tapestries including his masterpiece, a giant thread canvas of the Evacuation of Dunkirk. His deceptively simple work, with its acute understanding of how a ship holds itself in water, at last looks set to emerge from decades of neglect with a new exhibition and with this unorthodox biography that is part memoir, part travelogue and part eulogy.

Very little is known about Craske, but Blackburn makes a virtue of this uncertainty by folding in stories of her search for facts, of her own life, and of the eccentric Norfolk coastline. Along the way we learn about Einstein’s wartime stay in Sheringham, hear an alternative history of the Elephant Man, and investigate the mysteries of the pituitary gland.

Behind it all is the enigmatic figure of Craske himelf, absorbed in his painting, fixated on the sea, the return to stupor always imminent. The work is what gets him through. As the book progresses, Blackburn must contend with the death of her own much-loved husband. Her work - the completion of this subtle and absorbing book, full of sad treasures and odd pleasures - becomes her salvation too. A poignant meditation on creativity and grief.

Threads: The Delicate Life Of John Craske by Julia Blackburn is published in hardback by Jonathan Cape, priced £25 (ebook £13.99).