Picture Box No.1 – A to E

This year I’ve been trying to deal with all the clutter that has built up over 16 years of having young children. Some of it is my sons’ clutter – the pointless museum gift shop purchases that they’ve never touched, the half-empty science kits and, worst of all, years of party bag contents that were probably bought in Poundland. However, most of it is ours.

My main offence is leads. I have boxes and drawers full of leads for phones and appliances that were probably thrown out years ago. I’ve no idea what 90% of them are for.

My wife’s vice is books on how to deal with a difficult child – none of which have worked – and titles about organising your home. I was amused to find that a huge pile of  paperbacks by her bedside included two books on decluttering.

I’ve also been trying to simplify my computer clutter and remove all of the redundant documents, photos and audio files. The ‘My Pictures’ folder is a particularly chaotic affair, but I know that each image meant something at the time.

Here are some of the files that particularly struck me:

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This LP was given to me when I was eight or nine. My initial excitement soon turned to bitter disappointment when I put the record on and realised that they were all cover versions. There was a particularly bad version of the maudlin ‘Deck of Cards’ that sounded as if it had been performed by a double glazing salesman on his day off, with a nasal Estuary accent that achieved the seemingly impossible task of being worse than Max Bygraves.

I came to realise that any record with ‘Stereo Gold Award’ on it was to be avoided at all costs.

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I know nothing about the background to this photo. It looks as if it belongs to the set of a dystopian film, but I have a horrible feeling that this might be a picture of a real workplace, with a filing system on a Kafkaesque scale.

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This is a page from a 1928 department store catalogue that I came across. It is beautifully produced, with pages of colour photos of men’s clothing, from slippers to skiing outfits. I gave it to a friend who has a penchant for gentlemen’s accoutrements (he owns around 100 watches) and he was delighted. I wasn’t so pleased when, a year or two later, an Italian fashion editor offered me £600 for the catalogue.

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This photo shows my aunt (on the left) and my mother (with the hat) in the playground of the Darrel Road school in Richmond. It must have been taken in the mid-1930s. I like the unusually informal pose and the period features: a car-free street and the girl with a plaster over her lazy eye.

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When I was very young, just before cassette recorders became as common as radios, any trip to London usually included a visit to a Make-Your-Own-Record booth. You put the money in the slot, then when the light went on you began speaking. Once the recording was over, the machine would play the record back, before promptly dispensing it from a large slot.

My father kept trying to make me sing the hymn ‘Joy, Joy, Joy, With Joy My Heart is Ringing’, which contained the slightly ominous line “I’m on my way to Heaven”. I rebelled by singing ‘Yellow Submarine’, much to his annoyance.

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Green Shield Stamps were the Tesco Clubcard of their day, given out by a number of retailers. If you managed to fill enough pages of you collector’s book, you could take them to an Argos-style showroom and choose a gift from their catalogue. In the early 70s, the stamps were ubiquitous and during a very dull weekend at Butlins, I came across a fruit machine that paid out in Green Shield Stamps.

When retailers started to give discounts upfront, Green Shield stamps went into a slow decline and their stores became converted into the Argos brand. I assumed that they’d fizzled out in the late 70s, but apparently they limped on until 1991.

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I wish I knew who this was by. It looks like Doré, but that’s probably because he’s the only 19th century engraver I can think of. I love the way the ruins completely dwarf the people in the foreground. It’s a powerful image of a theme that has gained a new currency today.

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This is a photo of one of my favourite composers – Walter Leigh – and his wife. If he hadn’t been killed in action at the Battle of Tobruk, he might have gone on to become one of the major composers of his time. Sadly, he is largely forgotten, even though the small body of work that he left behind is exquisite, including this piece.

I looked into buying the unadulterated photo from Getty Images, but it’s far too expensive for an ordinary user.

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This is a photo of a boy who went to my older son’s school, taken during a particularly violent autumn storm. It’s a powerful image on its own terms, but it becomes all the more poignant when you learn that it was taken moments before the boy was hit by a wave and swept out to sea. The boy’s pose is both beautiful and tragic, defying nature with the overconfidence of the young.

It happened some years ago and even today, I still find myself thinking about the boy’s family and the friends who witnessed this terrible accident.

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This photo of ‘Ladies’ Day’, at Aintree Racecourse, has the epic grandeur of a canvas by William Powell Frith.

Ladies’ Day began as a highlight in the social calendars of the middle and upper classes of Liverpool, Cheshire and Manchester, but over the years it has descended into a booze-up for Scousers, with dresses that exhuberantly defy the accepted rules of good taste.

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I found this baby frog on the floor in my book shed. It was the the most recent addition to a menagerie of animals that includent a mink, several rats, a robins’ nest, a crested newt and hornets’ nest. It probably wasn’t the best place to store books.

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This is my older son’s hand gripping my finger, a day or two after he was born. I never ceased to be moved by the minute perfection of a newborn baby’s hands.

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For my sons, the highlight of the festive season is a box of very cheap Chinese Christmas crackers, with their abysmal jokes in ‘Chinglish’.

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This Stanley Spenceresque painting by Osmund Caine (1914-2004) is of the entrance to St Mary’s Parish Church, Twickenham, where my parents married and I was Christened. I love this painting and would like to get hold of a print, as it reminds me of the place that still feels like home, in many ways.

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Old Fashioned Tape Recorder with Microphone Attached — Image by © Lawrence Manning/Corbis

For people of my generation, Top 20 hits were often recorded with a microphone in front of a radio. The microphone would pick up any background sound as well as the song, so occasionally Stevie Wonder would be accompanied by the sound of our dog barking, or my mother telling me that tea was ready.

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Another picture of St Mary’s Church, Twickenham. I can be seen cycling behind my friend.

The Thames regularly broke its banks (the white plaque in the wall, to the left of the photo, marks the high water mark from an 18th century flood) and on the way home from school, we often had to cut through the churchyard to stay dry. My friend and I knew the road well enough to know that we could cycle through the water and a driver watched us, clearly thinking that if we could do it, so could he. He was wrong.

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A touching photo, taken on an autumn day in Brighton. This young couple were clearly on a date and were struggling to find things to say to each other. I imagine that the lad bought or won the cuddly toys for the girl, in an attempt to impress. Sadly, he wasn’t able to follow this up with scintillating conversation and the meal was largely spent in silence.

It reminded me of my first date, which was equally successful.

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How you see this photo will partly depend on whether the name Ena Sharples means anything to you, but even if you’re not familiar with ‘Coronation Street’, it’s a marvellous image that captures the end of an industrial era.

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This is what a tonne of books looks like and it was almost responsible for my early demise, when the pallet was being unloaded. It was at this point, while I was standing in the rain, trying to stop a tonne of books from falling on me from the back of a lorry, that I asked myself if this was a business I wanted to pursue into my 50s. I realised that it wasn’t.

It’s a pity in some ways. I’d developed a business model that worked well as long as I had a constant supply of stock. Sadly, that turned out to be the weak link. When two of my main suppliers went bankrupt, I could no longer afford to employ anyone and tried to continue on my own, but it was too much.

Finally, another picture I know nothing about, although I think it might be related to the Landmark Trust:

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This selection only goes from A to E, so perhaps I’ll share some others if anyone has enjoyed some of these.

The joy of The Brothers

Picture the scene: it’s the early 70s and two respected television screenwriters have arrived for a morning meeting with some BBC executives to discuss their idea for a new drama series:

“Hello Gerry. Hello Norman. Sherry? Righty ho. Glenda, would you bring two sherries in for Mr Glaister and Mr Crisp. Thank you. Now, what have you chaps got for us?”

“Well, NJ and I think we’ve struck gold. It’s about three brothers and an inheritance. Now I know that an awful lot of stories begin with a will, but we’ve found an angle that nobody has ever explored before.”

“I’m intrigued gentlemen. What is it?”

“It’s going to be set in the world of road haulage.”

“Ah.”

Welcome to The Brothers – a series that I have become gradually addicted to over the last few months:

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The brothers are, from left to right, Brian, Edward and David Hammond and during the programme’s seven series run, they can usually be seen either drinking or arguing:

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Edward Hammond is the eldest brother and left school at 14 to help his father build up the family’s road haulage business, while Brian and David have enjoyed the benefits of an extended education. Inexplicably, they don’t share Ted’s interest in lorries and weight restrictions.

The series begins with the death of their father, Robert Hammond, and the reading of a will that everyone assumes will be a mere formality. But when the Hammond family arrive at the solicitor’s office, they are surprised to find that Robert’s secretary has also been invited.

What is Jennifer Kingsley doing there? Perhaps the old boy has left her a few quid.

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The whole drama is defined by the 10-minute scene in which the will is read and the Hammond family learn that:

1. Jennifer Kingsley was Robert’s mistress for 20 years
2. They had a ‘love child’ together who is now 17
3. This child will inherit a large chunk of the family fortune when Robert’s wife dies
4. Edward Hammond will not have sole control of Hammond Transport
5. He will have a quarter share. The remaining 75% will go to his brothers and Jennifer

Nobody is happy. Jennifer Kingsley’s secret has been exposed and she is now a pariah. Brian and David are going to have to work in a business they have no interest in and Edward, who has helped to build the company, has been effectively snubbed by his father.

Robert’s wife Mary isn’t particularly amused either.

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The strength of the drama is the way it depicts the struggles of the three Hammond brothers and Jennifer Kingsley to overcome this unpromising start and pool their talents to build an even more successful business.

It’s not easy persuading Edward to work with his brothers. Neither Brian or David know the first thing about their father’s business, as shouty Edward likes to remind them:

“Damn it! I was helping Dad to do the Southampton run when you two were in short trousers. You were more interested in lollies than lorries!” (this isn’t an actual line, but it could have been).

Edward Hammond does a lot of shouting.

For me, perhaps the ultimate attraction of The Brothers is the period detail, evoking a world I grew up in, but was too young to participate in. I love the fashions, the interior design and the blasé attitude towards drinking and smoking.

In The Brothers, everyone drinks. If it’s 11.00 in the morning, it’s time for a sherry (there’s always a decanter in the boardroom cupboard). If it’s lunchtime, it’s time for a beer. Just home from work? Let’s have a bottle before we drive out to that new Greek restaurant (followed by another bottle with the meal and a nightcap back home).

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Of course, the Hammonds are very cautious about drink-driving and usually stop just after the third double whisky. Can’t be too careful.

Given today’s climate, in which even the faintest whiff of a chocolate liquer can make a nervous employer instigate disciplinary action, the casual attitude towards alcohol seems extraordinary.

And everyone smokes, everywhere. Ted has big Cuban cigars, while the others work their way through 20 B&H during the course of the day. They would have probably thought that ‘passive smoking’ had something to do with enjoying a pipe.

In addition to smoking and drinking, The Brothers also has plenty of that other staple vice of 1970s drama: adultery.

Femme fatale Anne Hammond, the wife of accountant Brian, constantly berates her placid husband for being more interested in the company’s figures than hers, reminding him that “I’m a woman, Brian”. Sadly, Brian doesn’t heed the warning signs, even when he sees her snuggling up to a creep called Nicholas Fox:

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The constant drinking, smoking and flirting seems absurd. Was anyone really like this? Well, anyone who has met my mother-in-law and her friends knows the answer to that. When my wife watched Anne cancel a visit to her children at boarding school so that she could spend quality time with her lover, she praised the series for its social realism.

However, the social realism isn’t just limited to the sexual mores of post-swinging London. The Brothers also documents the industrial strife and class antagonism that blighted many workplaces in the 1970s and if you feel a warm glow of nostalgia when you hear the phrases work to rule, picket line and union conveynor, this is the programme for you.

But the ultimate mark of realism is the telephone. When a character makes a call, they use the full seven numbers and we wait with them, as the dial slowly churns back to the beginning. Marvellous.

I am now working my way to the end of the fourth series and although I find the period aspects amusing, I’m also impressed by the quality of the writing and acting. Beneath the soap opera-like veneer of a family melodrama, The Brothers has some remarkably insightful moments that make it as compelling today as it was over four decades ago.

Anyone who wants to understand something about British society in the early 70s should watch The Brothers. It’s all there: the industrial strife, concerns about joining the EU (or ‘Common Market’ as it was then known), the attitudes towards drinking and smoking and the changing gender relationships. And unlike some of the more worthy efforts from the BBC drama department, it’s fun.

The series isn’t without its quirks. The actor playing Edward Hammond inexplicably changes between the first and second series – I wonder if the BBC used to regard roles like theatrical parts that could be played by any actor, rather than being intrinsically linked to a particular person. I also noticed that in the second series, there was virtually no location filming. And I’d really like to know why their odd but fascinating secretary suddenly disappears, halfway through the second season, never to be seen again.

There are three more series left. Apparently, the BBC suddenly decided to stop making it, with no warning to the cast. The story was left hanging in the air.

I’d like to think there’s a pub somewhere, with three old men sipping whiskies, moaning about how health and safety has ruined the world of road haulage:

“And as for the young, they don’t know how to drink. Too busy on their phones. I’m just popping out for a smoke. Anyone coming?”

The Brothers is available on DVD:


Cinema Paradiso

Last month began badly. One of my favourite cousins died at the ridiculously early age of 59. As children, she and her younger sister were the nearest thing I had to siblings, then as adults, we discovered that we had a natural rapport.

I heard the news from her husband, who wept as he spoke. I’d never witnessed such a raw, visceral grief before and felt utterly impotent, unable to think of anything to say other than “I’m so sorry”. Privately, I could only wonder at the cruelty of a universe in which a random mutation can separate a couple who had loved each other deeply.

I was reminded of the famous Kurt Vonnegut quote and felt in a very bleak mood, so when my wife started getting excited about the opening of a new cinema in Lewes, I really didn’t want to know. What was so special about a cinema? I told my wife that I wouldn’t be joining her and her friends on the opening night.

But on the day I suddenly had a change of heart. It was a beautiful, airy afternoon and the thought of staying indoors didn’t appeal, so as our older son was having one of his relatively saner days, we decided to leave him in charge (hoping that the house wouldn’t be a smouldering ruin when we returned).

I liked The Depot cinema as soon as I saw it, although the sign needs changing.

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The building is in the usual postmodern style, but the addition of local flint adds a nice vernacular touch. To the left of the photo, there is an outdoor seating area with sofas and tables, but there’s also plenty of space inside:

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We joined some friends for a drink and for the first time in ages, I felt my mood lift.

In hindsight, I suppose I’d become increasingly weighed down by a sense that life was, as they say, one damned thing after another. In the past, I dealt with feelings like this by having an adventure – I once alleviated the horrors of working in Slough by flying to Chile on a whim – but my childcare duties now made this strategy impossible. I felt stuck in a rut.

However, sitting in the sun, talking about Hitchcock films with a neighbour and planning which films we were going to see was all I needed to break the spell. Suddenly, I had things to look forward to again. A sense that life was full of possibilities as well as challenges.

As for the cinema, it has three screens and a wonderful Dolby sound system, with the added bonus of no adverts before the films. This is because the cinema is run as a non-profit making charity, thanks to a very healthy donation by a local philanthropist.

The films shown are a mixture of modern independent productions, mainstream features like Alien Covenant and classics from the era of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which my son and I are going to see tomorrow. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing old favourites as they were meant to be seen, on the big screen.

I also enjoyed watching Mad to Be Normal, a surprisingly funny new film about the controversial psychiatrist RD Laing (there was some confusion when my wife told someone that I’d been to see a movie about KD Lang).

I’ve no doubt that half of the films I’ll see are available on YouTube or Netflix, but I’ve realised that the movie itself is only part of the pleasure of going to The Depot. For me, the 15-minute walk there and back and the experience of sitting in a dark room with no interruptions are just as important.

As well as the delights of sitting in a dark room, I’ve been enjoying the light of the South Downs:

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I first got to know this landscape when I was 11. I was living in a sanitorium at the time and one morning, the nurses suddenly announced that we would be going for a walk.

It was a rare treat to be allowed outside and I assumed that we were going to visit a local playground. Instead, we walked through a succession of dull, residential roads with identical 1930s houses, many of which had twee names like ‘Ashdene’ and ‘Haymede’.

Several of us began to quietly complain to each other that this was a bit of a ‘swiz’ when suddenly, we reached a high wall with a narrow, iron gate. One of the nurses pushed the gate open and as we walked through, we found ourselves in open downland with views of rolling hills and the sea in the distance. It was an exhilarating moment and I’ve loved the Downs ever since.

In between looking after my sons and watching episodes of The Brothers (a programme that deserves its own blog post), I’ve been reading quite a lot recently. The discovery of Barbara Pym has been a particular pleasure and I also really enjoyed Sister Carrie. I hadn’t heard of the novel until, many years ago, a girl of about 14 asked me if our bookshop had a copy in stock. I assumed it must be some sort of jolly Louisa M Allcott-style story for young ladies, or perhaps a wholesome tale about a nun.

How wrong I was. For the 1900s, it is positively shocking and I can imagine that many early readers were scandalised by its contents. Perhaps they were also expecting a wholesome tale about a nun.

In addition to all of the above, I also briefly escaped to the 15th century:

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But that’s another story.

Stream of Unconsciousness

Last month I decided to do something I’d never done before and didn’t think I ever would. I don’t know whether the decision to do it was the result of becoming more broad-minded, or simply because I’ve given up caring.

I read a Stephen King novel.

I picked ‘The Stand’ because it was a post-apocalyptic story rather than a supernatural one. At least, that’s what I thought. Sadly, after reading several hundred pages, the Devil appeared and it all got a bit silly. But King can write and I can now see why a friend at university decided to make him the subject of his dissertation, even if I probably won’t try another of his books.

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I decided to try ‘The Stand’ because I wanted a big doorstep of a novel that would provide some escapism from the stresses of daily life, particularly the recent death of a friend. Sometimes I worry that I’m turning into my father, whose tastes became increasingly lowbrow with age.

On one occasion, when I was 15 or 16, I was enjoying watching an interview with Jonathan Miller when my dad suddenly muttered something under his breath and changed channels, to a programme featuring dancing girls. I was furious.

“But I was watching that! It was…educational” I said, trying to imply that my exam results might be vaguely compromised unless we switched back to Miller.

My dad sighed. “It was flippin’ talk talk talk. I don’t want to be educated, I want to be entertained.” I felt a visceral horror at his shameless philistinism.

I can’t remember what I said in reply, but I have a feeling it reached new heights of pubescent prigishness and pomposity. After making an eloquent defence of western civilisation, I stomped out of the room and played Beethoven, loudly.

Over three decades on, I’m now the man who often can’t face watching an hour-long BBC4 documentary, but will happily make time for ‘The Walking Dead’. I don’t want to be educated. I want to be entertained.

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Of course, that’s not strictly true. I still read challenging books and enjoy listening to BBC podcasts of programmes like Start the Week, but there are other areas where I feel I don’t want to know any more, because what I already know is depressing enough. Indeed, there are some things that I wish that I could unlearn.

My friend’s funeral took place a couple of weeks ago, in a wood in Surrey (designated for burials rather than just some random woodland – you can’t bury bodies anywhere as that might spark a murder investigation). We were asked to wear stripes rather than formal clothes and I donned a Breton fisherman’s shirt for the first time since 1992.

I was dreading the funeral, but also looking forward to the opportunity to share our grief with others. Sadly, less than 20 minutes into the journey, my car came out in sympathy and also died. We never made it to Surrey.

My car was in good condition and should have had several years ahead of it, but by some stroke of bad luck, a seal broke and the oil started to leak into the fuel. This caused the engine to start burning the oil as well as the diesel, so that even when I took my foot off the accelerator pedal, the car kept getting faster and faster. At one point, I felt as if I was Keanu Reeves in Speed.

Luckily, as we edged towards 100mph, I saw a layby up ahead, and was able to flip the gear into neutral and coast to safety. My wife was thankfully oblivious to how much danger we were in. The AA man was clearly bemused to find two middle-aged people dressed like pirates, but he was the epitome of quiet professionalism.

The car was towed back to Lewes and later I received the good news, “Yes, we can replace the engine” followed by the bad news, “But it will cost twice the market value of the car”.

In the end, I sold a perfectly good car (engine excepted) for scrap. I received £300.

I did contemplate replacing my car with something completely impractical but great fun (I saw a lovely 2001 Jag on sale at an affordable price). Then I remembered that a friend had bought a Saab convertible (with 130,000 miles on the clock) to cheer herself up. She enjoyed ten blissful weeks of driving around Brighton before the car blew up.

I think that was also sold for scrap.

By now, you will have realised that there is no theme to this post. It is just a stream of consciousness, typed in haste before one of my sons issues a request for either food or company. That is my entire life at the moment, but come September, when they will both hopefully walk to school and college, I will be free to start doing things again and clear away the cobwebs.

In theory.

I met a very interesting woman in the pub the other day who asked me what I liked about my jobs. I told her and without pausing for thought, she replied “You should be a life coach”.

I was baffled. “Surely there’s an element of ‘Physician heal thyself’ isn’t there?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. I can tell you’d be good at it.”

There are three possibilities. One is that she’s wrong. Two is that she tells everyone that they should be a life coach. Three is that she has a point. But I’d always dismissed it as one of those silly, made-up jobs, in which the bullshitter preys on the gullible.

Perhaps that was her point. I hope not.

Past Pleasures

The fag end of winter seems to go on forever, so I’ve been consoling myself by making plans for the summer holidays. My older son says that he wants to go to America, but I’m not a fan of long-haul flights these days, so I will try to entice him with something closer to home.

I hear that Pontins is still going:

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This is an aerial view of Pontins in Southport. It looks as if there should be a sign at the entrance saying Arbeit Macht Frei and I’m not encouraged by a report in the Liverpool Echo about a “mass brawl” and allegations of “drug use, health and safety concerns and death tragedy”.

I can imagine that a weekend there would be entertaining, but not in a good way.

My ideal holiday would require a time machine, as I would love to travel around Britain and Europe in the days when motor cars were a luxury and retail chains were something that hung in doorways during the summer months, to keep the flies out.

I’ve been partly inspired by a batch of photos that I found recently – all taken during the 1920s and 30s. Here are some of my favourites:

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These people wouldn’t have a punch-up in Pontins. They are enjoying their bucolic idyll without compromising any sartorial standards and for them, tattoos were things that one visited.

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Of course, there are occasions when one should hang up one’s jacket and prepare to pull up one’s sleeves, very slightly.

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I particularly like this photo, taken at a child’s level, which gives us a tantalising glimpse of the shop window, with what looks like cakes or pies.

Also, notice that the dogs aren’t trying to eat her, as this is the pre-Rotweiler era.

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I remember my parents letting me take a float like this out to sea when I was 10. I couldn’t swim, but that didn’t seem to bother them. My father would often complain about ‘health and safety nonsense’ which was ironic, as he worked for the Health and Safety Executive.

A friend saw this photo and said that the woman is a ‘Double Barker’. I am waiting for an explanation.

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This would almost be a good photo, if someone hadn’t committed the common error of chopping off the subject’s feet and placing them dead centre. However, it’s still worth posting for the pleasure of seeing someone enjoying the outdoors in an immaculate, three-piece suit.

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This photo is of a great grandmother and is dated 1924. She looks like a ghost from the Victorian age, rather than someone who has spent 24 years in the new century.

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There’s no name or date on the back of this photo, but with her tie and utilitarian hairstyle, she may have taken her holidays at Radclyffe Hall. She looks like someone who would be a fun travelling companion, although I might have to hide the whisky bottle.

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Another appealing facet of this era is the preference for high-waisted trousers, which enabled gentlemen to churn butter without exposing anything unsightly as they bent down to turn the handle.

I will rejoice when these trousers reappear in the shops.

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This formidable-looking group of women remind me of my great-aunts, who were born in the 1890s and refused to make any concessions to postwar fashions. Some of them even eschewed the 1920s, preferring the long skirts and brooches of their youth.

This photo is typical of the time, where the holiday was often an occasion to dress up rather than down.

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It’s rare to find an old photo where the subjects aren’t standing still. This appears to be an impromptu shot and the gentlemens’ faces betray their slight discomfort.

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Finally, if you’re not happy with the 1920s or 30s, this portal will take you to a different time zone. This man’s about to travel to the year 2016, where people will probably live on the moon and war will be a thing of the past.

Sadly, I have no time portal, so I will have to make do with the present. Perhaps, now that my wife and I have discovered some mysterious Irish ancestry in our DNA profiles, it’s time for a trip to the Emerald Isle.

R.I.P Jane Eccles

I’ve never liked February, but this one was worst than most and it was hard to ignore the creeping feeling of despair that grew as the days passed. Then, just as I thought the worst was over, I learned that my friend Jane had died.

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It wasn’t a complete shock. She had been suffering from secondary cancer for many years, but had survived against the odds for so long, a small part of me began to believe that she was indestructible. If only.

I first met her at Waterstone’s in Richmond when I became a bookseller, 28 years ago. She was a freelance illustrator who worked part-time and for the next five years, we must have spent thousands of hours in each other’s company, sharing jokes, baring our souls and bickering like an old couple.

Work relationships are strange things. They can seem like a very close friendships (or a deep animosity), but once people leave their shared environment, the intense feelings often seem to vanish into thin air, leaving a polite awkwardness.

That never happened with Jane and although we only met a few times in recent years, the rapport was unaltered.

At one point, we even shared the same therapist. I was feeling rather glum after a close relative was killed in a car crash and Jane said that I should see a woman in Kew called Isabel, who had studied with Freud’s daughter. The idea of being only two steps away from the great man himself appealed, so I decided to give it ago.

Isabel was a lovely woman, but had never quite grasped the concept of professional detachment and once invited the two of us round for tea and cakes, which was both nice and strange at the same time. Neither of us were quite sure how effective the theraputic aspect was, but the experience was not to be missed.

In addition to sharing therapists (just writing that makes me shudder with embarrassment), Jane was also my wife’s landlady for a while, so the three of us developed a bond that remained strong.

As a friend observed, Jane was a quiet person but had a remarkably strong personality. She had very particular likes and dislikes, with a large vocabulary of nicknames for things. A snack was always a ‘snackerel’ and if anyone dared to use the word ‘portion’ in her presence, she would hiss like a cat.

She had a rather eccentric approach to running her cookery section in Waterstone’s. I remember that she always ordered three copies of The Cranks Recipe Book. It used to arrive, go on the shelf and sell out within 24 hours. We would then have to wait a week or two for the next delivery of three copies. When I dared to suggest that it might be an idea to order 15 or more,  I received a hissing cat noise in response.

But while Jane may not have qualified for the Bookseller of the Year award, she was an excellent illustrator whose work was in great demand. She studied at the Chelsea School of Art in the late 1970s and developed a commercial style that echoed Quentin Blake, but was instantly recognisable as Jane Eccles to anyone that knew her work.

Here are some examples of her art:

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Jane could have probably enjoyed greater recognition, but she was never pushy and couldn’t take the corporate world seriously. Like the best people, she cared about the things that really mattered and thought that the world of corporate strategies and brand values was all rather silly.

When Jane discovered that she had cancer, her only child had recently started at secondary school. Jane was determined to see him grow up and did everything that her doctors advised, enduring a gruelling regime of treatment without any self-pity or protest.

She appeared to beat the cancer, but sadly it returned and Jane was told that her condition was terminal. At that point, we all thought that she would never get to see her son go to university, but Jane suprised us all and lived for several years longer than expected. More importantly, she enjoyed a suprisingly active and healthy life for much of that time and was able to be there for her son when he started out as an undergraduate.

I had very little idea of what secondary breast cancer was and what made it different from normal breast cancer, but this short film of Jane’s explains it perfectly.

I feel terribly sorry for Jane’s son and husband. I also feel very sorry for her father, who has now outlived two of his three children. I tried to think of something positive or comforting to say on their cards, but was lost for words.

Jane was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met: kind, gentle and generous, with a loveable eccentricity and a wicked sense of humour. She loved her family, friends and pets and that love was easily reciprocated.

The world will be a poorer place without her.

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The Best of the Worst

It’s easy to view the period from the 1950s to the mid 1970s as a golden age of book illustration and graphic design. Think of all those wonderful Penguin covers, or children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

But it was also an age that saw some truly awful examples of cover art – far worse than anything today.

Here are a few of the shockers I found last week:

01This is a relatively minor offender. Some people might even like it as an example of early 1960s design, but I’m not a fan. First, I think it’s a mistake to have three different typefaces. Second, I don’t understand why the tree is far more abstract than the rest of the picture. Third, the boy looks as if he’s suffering from a rather debilitating case of jaundice.

Here’s another gem from the ‘Early Bird’ series:

02

This looks as if it’s been produced in a particularly backward Warsaw Pact country during the 1950s. Perhaps it was. I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been as a present.

Peter and the Picture Thief might be a cracking story, but the cover is as exciting as a school trip to a brass rubbing centre.

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This follows a similar, penny-piching approach by only employing three colours. As an illustration, it’s more accomplished, but the once again, the overall effect of the cover has that grim, Eastern Bloc feel about it, as if colour was somehow too decadent and bourgeois.

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This cover has the virtue of being in full colour, but features three children vomitting and writhing in agony while a giant rabbit looks on, passively. As a child, I would have preferred this cover to the other three, although I wasn’t keen on animal stories.

Moving on to books for adults:

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I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect too much from a publisher called Budget Books, but this is a particularly cheap and nasty cover. Even the title length appears to have been subject to budgetry constraints. And what sort of a name is Rice Cordell?

06

This is the tenth novel in Vardis Fisher’s ‘Testament of Man’ series and the cover features a man in a loincloth running away from a brazen hussy. At least, that’s what it looks like. It’s better than many covers of the time, but the illustration is a bit slapdash.

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This almost works, but the addition of a giant woman’s head looks rather odd. I can see that the artist is trying to convey David’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but a more subtle illustration and a decent blurb on the back would have sufficed.

08

This cover features a strange blend of colour and monochrome people, for no discernible reason. At first, I thought the woman was standing in front of a screen showing a black and white film, but no, they’re all in the same room. It’s very odd.

Hank Janson is also a strange case. A celebrated author of American pulp fiction, he was actually a work of fiction himself, created by an unassuming Englishman called Stephen Daniel Frances.

Several people wrote as Hank Janson and the titles include the following gems:

  • Baby, Don’t Squeal
  • A Nympho Named Silvia
  • Skirts Bring Me Sorrow
  • Jazz Jungle
  • Hotsy, You’ll Be Chilled
  • Wild Girl
  • Vagabond Vamp
  • Beauty and the Beat
  • Visit From a Broad
  • This Dame Dies Soon

Finally, my favourite:

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I have no idea what the groom is keeping in his pyjama pocket, but he has the countenance of a man walking to the scaffold. Perhaps he’s learned that the bride’s breasts are the product of gender reassignment surgery and that she used to be called Kenneth. She certainly has a knowing expression.

That concludes this selection. I’m sure there will be more to come.

A Question of Identity

A few weeks before my mother died, she asked me if I could find out whether her oldest sister had been conceived out of wedlock. If the sister was illegitimate, it would explain why her parents had been unnaturally reticent about their past. It might also account for their rather Calvinist sense of morality, atoning for past sins.

My mother must have known about it for years, but suddenly had a greater sense of urgency, as if she realised that her time was drawing to an end. Later that day, I went online and discovered how easy it was to track people down, even when their surname was Smith.

Within less than an hour, I was able to confirm that my maternal grandparents had indeed given in to the heat of the moment (actually, it must have been quite a long moment, as those whalebone corsets are a devil to get off). They tried to cover their tracks with a snap wedding, but my great-aunt ruined it all by arriving a month early. It caused a scandal within the family.

I rang my mother and told her that it was all true. I think she was secretly delighted that her family life echoed the plot of one of her beloved romance novels.

After looking up various birth, death and marriage certificates on a family history website, I started being bombarded with adverts for ancestry DNA tests. At first I ignored them, as it seemed a rather frivolous way of spending £100. Then a special offer arrived and like my grandparents, I succumbed to temptation.

I’d always been a little sceptical about the value of ancestry DNA tests, but the technology has improved and I thought it would be fun to see if the results bore any relation to the person I believed I was.

All I knew about my family was that we were all English on both sides, right down to the last third cousin, twice removed. But the phrase ‘pure English’ is, of course, an oxymoron. The latest research suggests that it means very different things, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

The traditional narratives may have claimed that the English were Germanic invaders, who had pushed the native Britons to the western fringes of Britain. However, recent findings point to a more complex picture of continuity and assimilation. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, added to the gene pool, but hadn’t radically changed it.

I expected to be largely descended from the forgotten prehistoric peoples who came here after the ice age, with some Anglo-Saxon and a little Viking. I secretly hoped for something a little more exotic – perhaps even some Neanderthal – but was resigned to being Mr Average.

The results came as something of a surprise:

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It was a shock to discover that I was only 21% British (and where did the 11% Irish come from?). However, the biggest bombshell was learning that I was two-thirds continental European. In addition, I was also more Western European than the average Western European. How did that happen?

I dug deeper and learned that my European ancestors were largely from Holland and northern Germany, with a soupçon of Scandinavian and Mediterranean. It would seem that the English were the 5th century’s equivalent of EU migrants.

Further back, I am also descended from a 5,000 years old gentleman in Stuttgart, whose bones were found in a cave. I went through Stuttgart once on a sleeper train, but didn’t have any strange dreams about killing wolves.

As for the smigdeon of Irish, apparenly it could be Scottish, but I think I’ll be like those blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who identify as Native American and invent a new Hibernian identity for myself. Come St Patrick’s Day, I’ll be cracking open the Guinness and singing Danny Boy with the rest of them.

Ancestry DNA tests are just a bit of fun, but there is a serious aspect to it too. I can imagine how the Nazis would have eagerly embraced this technology as a tool to measure racial purity, only to discover, to their horror, that we are all descended from immigrants.

We are ‘the other’. Mr Trump take note.

In the meantime, I shall be deporting myself back to Europe as soon as a vacancy arises for a hunter-gatherer. If you’re aware of any caves going free in the Stuttgart area, please let me know.

A Short Story

The following post was originally published in my old blog, just over nine years ago. As very few people read the blog in those days, I thought I’d give it a second outing.

It was written a couple of weeks before I walked out of my job as a Waterstone’s manager. I was very unhappy and in a mood of desperation, applied for a training course that later turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. Thankfully, I realised that something was wrong before I handed over any cash.

But I digress. I’m reposting this not because of any literary merit, but because it almost feels like a short story, although every word is true:
tolworth

Last week I went to take part in an aptitude test session at Tolworth Tower – a grim, 1960s office block on the fringes of Greater London, next to the busy A3 road. When I booked the tests, I was asked if I knew where the tower was. I said that I had been there before, but didn’t mention that it was when I was on my first date.

I was a very young 17 and had wanted to ask a girl I knew out, but didn’t know how to go about it. Then, for some reason, I hit on the idea of suggesting tenpin bowling. I’ve no idea why.

I found her number in the phone book and dialled it. To my delight, she said yes and three days later, we met at the bus stop and caught a 281 to Tolworth Tower’s bowling alley.

I thought the day had gone well. After a game of bowling, we took the bus back to Teddington and had what felt like a romantic walk in Bushy Park. It was a beautiful spring day. Sadly, she didn’t share my view and I never saw her again. I quite upset and resolved to abandon tenpin bowling as part of my wooing technique.

After the aptitude test I decided to catch the train to Twickenham and revisit the places I had known since childhood. There were quite a few changes. Every other building now seemed to be a restaurant and what had once been a solidly white, slightly down at heel area, had been augmented by more exotic faces and languages.

I walked down to the River Thames – a part of Twickenham that hasn’t changed much in 250 years – and visited the church where my parents married and I was Christened. It was empty and after lighting a candle for my father, I studied a noticeboard to see if I recognised any of the photos of the members of the parish council. They were all strangers.

How can you grow up somewhere, attend school with over a thousand other local children and, within a fairly short space of time, feel like an outsider? Where had everyone gone? I began to feel slightly depressed.

Suddenly the church door swung open and a woman asked me if would be much longer. I explained that I was about to leave. ‘Okay that’s fine.’ she replied ‘When you go can you make sure that you shut the door very firmly – you really have to slam it.’

I nodded and just as she was leaving I realised who she was. I wanted to rush after her and say how strange it was that after visiting Tolworth Tower for the first time since our one and only date, I should bump into her like this. But by the time I had obediently slammed the church door shut, she was gone.

Camera Obscura

Yesterday, I cleared away our Christmas decorations and found a card from a relative that simply read “The postmistress has started putting sausages through my letterbox. I’m a worried man!”

It reminded me of the scraps of paper I use to find in books, ranging from enigmatic messages that sounded like Cold War code:

To ones like this rather strange find:

These remnants of lost lives are tantalising, particularly the photograph albums that have no names, dates or locations in them, showing us so much and telling us so little.

My latest find is an album of tiny, negative-sized prints that look as if they were taken in the 1910s and 1920s:

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We begin with what looks like a lower middle class family, a century ago. The man may be smiling under his moustache, but it’s hard to tell. The clothing is respectable, but the two children in the front have bare feet!

Perhaps it’s a holiday snap.

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My lamentable ignorance about military uniforms and cap badges always lets me down. I assumed that this was taken during the First World War, although their relaxed, informal pose suggests a slightly later time.

The person in the background looks a little like Robbie Williams.

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I’ve found hundreds of old photos over the last five years, but never one of a sleeping child before. It’s a very touching image, although the wallpaper reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s last words.

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Another photo of somebody asleep and I’m aware that my reaction to it is very different. With the boy, I see sleep as a healthy, nurturing part of growth.  When I look at this photo, I’m reminded that in Greek mythology, sleep and death were twin brothers.

Sorry if that sounds rather morbid. I think all these celebrity deaths are getting to me.

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Perhaps the cause of the gentleman’s siesta was some over-zealous sandcastle building. I know how easy it is to get carried away, particularly when the tide’s coming in.

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I love this photograph, with its meeting of two very different eras. The woman was probably born in the 1840s or 50s, around the same time that Dickens and Thackeray were at the height of their careers. Unlike the generations of women below hers, who adapted to the more utilitarian fashions of World War One, she remains resolutely Victorian.

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In contrast, this woman is thoroughly modern. The photo is on the same page as the Victorian matriarch, so I assume that they were vaguely contemporaneous.

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Is this the same woman, but taken before the war? It’s very difficult to tell.

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Cat photos are also fairly rare among the albums I’ve found. There are plenty of dogs pictures; probably because they’re more biddable and remain still while the shutter is open. Dogs also let you put sunglasses and hats on them.

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This is another unusual picture of a Victorian journeyman – a man who has found himself living in a very different, mechanised world. I don’t know what he’s holding in his right hand; it almost looks as if he’s popped out for a carton of milk.

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The album ends with a touch of 20s glamour. I think this is the woman we saw three photographs earlier, in the beautiful dress.

I’m always interested in albums from this period because of the huge rupture that took place in people’s fashions and social mores after the upheaval of war. It feels as if we’re on the verge of another upheaval – hopefully minus a war – and who knows, in ten years’ time, we may all be wearing sparkly catsuits and tricorn hats.

One can only hope.