It is in acting out of character that we reveal our true selves. Or something like that. At any rate, I’m always interested in how my favourite Johannes Speyer stories are the ones which, on the surface, seem to say little about the ‘essential character’ (or essentially ‘perceived’ character) of the great man.
I have said before, no doubt, that Speyer was not a man of action. And yet at the same I keep referring to him as the Father of Active Reading. ‘I don’t go out much,’ he said to me once, not long before he died. It was an understatement. He barely left the house. But when he did, well: that was when things happened.
Consider the sky-writing incident. How old was Speyer when he did this? I can’t recall, but he was no spring chicken. He wasn’t even an autumn chicken. Low on funds, energy and time, his sudden decision to stage a major active-reading-skywriting project took most people by surprise. Not least the skywriters.
Skywriting is some skill, sure – but there’s no denying the vast majority of what gets written in the sky is the most banal sort of tripe. A company name, a short message of love, contemporary lingo – it’s hardly poetry, is it? Speyer had noticed this, and he was determined to change it, whatever the cost (and trust me when I say that the cost was high. Sky high). So he commissioned what is, I think, the longest piece of skywriting to date; the first sentence of Paavo Laami’s famous novel The Phoenicians, in its entirety.
In its entirety? I lie. It wasn’t quite the whole first sentence. The unfortunate skywriter in question misread his instructions and missed out a comma. This sent Speyer into a rage. He cursed the pilot a thousand times. He refused to pay up. He cursed the pilot a thousand times more. He wrote letters to skywriting magazines (of which there are a surprising amount) vehemently protesting his case. Not for a moment did he reflect on the near triumph of his project. Not for the first time (see here) he allowed a small piece of punctuation to ruin everything.
It’s a pity, for like I said, the project was almost an absolute triumph. Despite the mishap, he had created a thing of no uncertain beauty. Paavo Laami written in the sky! Wonderful. To Speyer, however, there was no such consolation. When he did crawl out of his shell and set about making things happen, it really was a case of all or nothing. There was to be no compromise. Not on his watch.