Last Weekend

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Last weekend was rather odd. On Saturday, my step-mother-in-law revealed that her 83-year-old brother had recently tried to become a porn actor, while on Sunday, we narrowly missed a mysterious chemical cloud, during a trip to the beach. I’m not sure which was the biggest shock.

The porn incident was certainly a surprise, as the gentleman in question was a very respectable, somewhat dour Scot, who had spent his whole life working in insurance. What possessed him, at the age of 83, to sign up with an agency that promised to find roles in the ‘adult entertainment’ industry is something of a mystery. I’d almost salute him for raging against the dying of the light, but sadly his actions had consequences for his family.

Like many men of his age, Alistair had learned to use the internet, but was unaware of the finer points of user history, spam, ad blockers and viruses. As a result, whenever his wife logged on to book tickets for a concert, pop-ups would suddenly appear featuring ladies and gentlemen doing unspeakable things to each other. The laptop was sent off to be repaired on more than one occasion, but the problem persisted.

Nobody suspected Alistair.

Next, money started to disappear from the joint bank account – four-figure sums that couldn’t easily be explained. These were the fees that the agency required in order to find two compatible women who would share the billing. The address of the company was fake.

At this point, the details become hazy, as Alistair still hasn’t told the whole story, but it would appear that he arranged to meet a woman in London and by an extraordinary bad stroke of luck (for him at least), was spotted in Victoria Station by his daughter.

Alistair’s daughter was delighted to see him and asked him what he was doing in London. To her dismay, he seemed annoyed that she’d found him and muttered something about going to an insurance conference. For a man who’d retired two decades earlier, it was an improbable story. Did they even have insurance conferences on Saturdays?

As the truth gradually emerged, the family joined forces and managed to stop any further assignations or withdrawals of money. The children told themseleves that Alistair’s uncharacteristic actions were probably a symptom of dementia and if that’s the story they need to tell themselves, I quite understand, but in every other respect he is fully compos mentis.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that there is no fool like an old fool.

The chemical cloud incident was also baffling. My wife and I took our younger son to a beach near the Seven Sisters and intended to spend the whole afternoon there, but he kept complaining that he felt tired and wanted to go home.

It was a really beautiful, late summer afternoon – comfortably hot, but with a cooling sea breeze. I had no intention of leaving early and would have happily stayed until the evening, but there is only so long that you can ignore someone who isn’t enjoying themselves. After an hour, we agreed to go back.

At the time, I felt rather hard done by, but later learned that we’d narrowly missed an incident that resulted in six miles of coastline being evacuated, as a mysterious chemical cloud came in from the sea.  People who had been happily sunbathing, swimming and building sandcastles, suddenly found themselves suffering from stinging eyes, nausea and breathing difficulties.

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Unsure of what was happening, the emergency services responded in full force. Paramedics appeared in breathing masks, while the police began to evacuate the area. The nearest hospital prepared its A&E department for a sudden influx of patients.

It was like a John Wyndham story, albeit one with less lethal consequences – slightly stinging eyes and feeling a bit off colour isn’t quite the stuff of a classic science fiction story (although its mundanity is suitably British). But it was alarming that a cloud of gas could appear out of nowhere. Where had it come from?

The gas was quickly identified as chlorine, but the origin remained uncertain. A factory in Northern France seemed the most plausible explanation, but the wind patterns made this improbable. Others fancifully suggested a terrorist attack launched from the sea, or even toxic algae. One week on, we’re none the wiser.

I’d always seen the British beach as a safe place or, if you prefer, a safe space. A contradictory environment that was both unchanging and transient – time and tide. No longer.

From now on, I will have an eye out for deadly clouds, malevolent algae, krakens and, most terrifying of all, libidinous 83-year-old men.

Northern Exposure

After my recent rant about travel and tourism, I realised that I forgotten to mention any of the positive things about my recent trip to Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands so I shall redress the balance.

First, there was the accommodation. Until I discovered the Landmark Trust, I had no idea that you could have a medieval gatehouse all to yourself, for only slightly more money than a budget hotel room.

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This is what’s left of the castle in Cawood – a once important Yorkshire town that gradually became eclipsed by its neighbours, particularly after the Industrial Revolution. Today, it’s a pleasant village with just one shop and a couple of pubs.

I’d never heard of Cawood Castle, but it has a long list of illustrious visitors, including Henry VIII and Thomas Wolsey, who was arrested here. Over the centuries, the gatehouse has been used a prisoner of war camp (during the Civil War), a courthouse and an officers’ mess.

Today, it is a holiday home.

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The Landmark Trust have done a wonderful job of maintaining the gatehouse’s historical character without compromising on modern comforts. I particularly appreciated the compact kitchen, which had a bone china tea set and a set of Le Creuset saucepans – a far cry from many holiday rentals.

The only slight problem was the winding stone staircase, which connected the sitting room with the loos and bedroom. My wife and I decided to limit our alcohol intake to a bottle of light fizz, rather than risk plunging to our doom during the night.

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At the top of the gatehouse, we were able to sit in deckchairs and enjoy the view. We were warned that the locals would be having an open air party on Saturday night, but they were barely audible. Most of the time, it was so quiet that I could only hear the ringing in my ears.

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My sons moaned a little about the absence of wifi and television, but far less than I was expecting. Overall, they seemed to enjoy the silence and slept like logs in their huge room, with its grand fireplace.

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If you want to escape from the crowds, enjoy quirky, eccentric buildings and can survive with only books and board games for entertainment, I can warmly recommend the Landmark Trust.

I also enjoyed being in Yorkshire, where plain speaking is particularly valued. When I ordered a Sunday lunch in a pub that seemed to be staffed entirely by schoolgirls, I was told “If yer want it in’t garden, you’ll ‘ave to pay oop front”.  I presume the implication was that I might do a runner after finishing my meal.

In other situations, it might have sounded rude, but coming from a girl who was 14, going on 65, it was more endearing than anything else.

During our weekend in Cawood, we went to York and did the usual things that anyone does there, along with umpteen thousand other people. I love York, but it’s one of those places that has become fully ‘monetized’ and there are few surprises to be had.

However, the day after York, I went on one of the most interesting guided tours I’ve ever been on.

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I’ve always had a hankering to visit a coal mine, ever since reading The Road To Wigan Pier. My wife thought that it was a yet another one of my strange whims, but why wouldn’t anyone be interested? Virtually everything that has happened in the last 250 years has been enabled by coal, one way or another.

The National Coal Mining Museum opened in 1988, three years after it closed as a working colliery and offers underground tours given by ex-miners. I had naively assumed that the modern coal mine would be a relatively comfortable working environment, but the reality was quite different.

The first surprise was the lift. There were around 20 of us in the tour group and when I saw the tiny cage that would take us down to the coal face, I wondered whether we could do it in two or three shifts. But our guide was having none of that:

“C’mon, that’s it. Squeeze right up to the end. We’ll all get in. Even you Doris…”

I couldn’t believe that we’d all fit in, but we did and I realised that it was quite right that we should experience the cage journey from the miner’s perspective. But I was wrong again:

“We’re going down quite quickly, but this isn’t the lift’s proper speed. We used to go at least six times faster.” Time was money, he explained.

As we descended, the air changed and water dripped down the side of the shaft. Then suddenly, we slowed to a halt and the cage door slid open. I had expected a large, brightly lit space with tunnels going off in different directions, but the reality was gloomy and claustrophobic.

We’d been equipped with hardhats and safety torches, specially designed to avoid igniting any methane gas emissions. All electronic devices were banned – even car keys – so there was no temptation to look for good photo opportunities. Instead, we were able to fully engage with our surroundings and try and imagine what it must have been like to work there.

Our guide showed us a narrow tunnel where, two centuries ago, children as young as five worked with their parents in total darkness. The children were tied to their parents by a rope, otherwise they could have been lost forever. We were asked to turn off our torches for a minute and experience the complete absence of light.

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The guide invited us to crawl through a tunnel that was barely wider than a normal adult body. Most people declined, but I felt compelled to have a go and as I squeezed my way awkwardly towards to the exit, I tried to imagine what it must have been like on the first day in a mine. To realise that this was your life from now on, with few opportunities for respite and no prospect of deliverance.

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Of course, as time went on, conditions improved. But even the modern, post-nationalisation coal face, with all of its safety features, was still a unremittingly grim place to work. I left feeling an even greater respect for the miners, along with a gratitude that I’d been born in a different time and place.

After leaving Yorkshire, we drove to the Scottish Highlands where nothing out of the ordinary happened. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t enjoy it; just that it was very similar to our trip the year before.

We went for a very pleasant walk next to the River Garry (sadly, there is no river called Steve or Colin), which was enjoyably rugged.

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My younger son (pictured) had a bit of a sulk because we wouldn’t let him cross the fast-moving river by hopping from boulder to boulder. I think his faith in his manual dexterity has been inflated by playing computer games.

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Perhaps something interesting happened to us in Scotland, but I can’t recall anything. It was just very lovely, as always. If anything comes back to me I’ll let you know.

This year’s experiences have taught me three lessons:

1. Always stay in a Landmark Trust property, if possible.

2. Don’t let my son choose the car music.

3. Remember that boredom is character building for children.

The Madding Crowd

It’s a year since I abandoned my old blog and moved here. In terms of readership, it was probably a mistake – I have gone from a  total of over nearly 1.8 million hits to 13,000 – but I feel strangely happier about it.

I’ve noticed that a number of bloggers have gone quiet over the last year or so. I don’t know if it’s part of some social media phenomenon, or simply a case of running out of steam. I suspect that it’s both.

In my case, laziness has resulted in several blog posts being whittled down to a photo on Instagram and if you follow my account, you’ll have seen that I recently spent some time outside the Truman Show bubble of Lewes.

I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account of my travels around Yorkshire, Scotland and Wiltshire, except to say that it changed my attitude to travel and when I read several newspaper articles about anti-tourist protests, I nodded my head in agreement.

The contrast was most striking in Wiltshire, where I began a day in an extraodinary Neolithic tomb, over 50 centuries old:

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It is situated less than half a mile away from a main road, but it might as well be ten times further, as it felt so removed from the modern world. I had expected a handful a visitors, but it was silent and empty.

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A small tunnel leads to a wider chamber that had a faint smell of damp and woodsmoke. It was so quiet, I felt as if I could hear the faint, dull roar of all those past centuries, but it was probably just the A4.

I felt very privileged to be alone in a place that was 500 years older than Stonehenge and tried to imagine the tomb’s builders, huddled around a fire in winter. We know next to nothing about them and the language they spoke and I was brought up to regard these people as primitive. However, they had moved these huge, impossibly heavy stones and created a structure that has lasted for over 5000 years.

To compliment the Neolithic theme, in the afternoon I took my family to Stonehenge. Sadly, it was a very different experince:

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This photo doesn’t do justice to the full horror of visiting Stonehenge. It doesn’t include the huge car park, money spinning vistor centre or the fleet of buses that ferry visitors to and from the stone circle. Also, it doesn’t show how many of the visitors seem more interested in the stones as a backdrop to a selfie or group photo, rather than as a place worth contemplating (perferably in silence).

These people had obviously gone to some effort to get here – many had come all the way from China – so why were they behaving as if they were at a rock concert?

During the next couple of weeks, I observed the same phenomenon in a number of places, from York Minster to the Isle of Skye and I concluded that many of these visitors were simply interested in these places because they were ‘bucket list’ destinations.

Stonehenge is, to use that vapid phrase, an ‘iconic’ place; particularly since it became a World Heritage Site. It is a boxed that needs to be ticked and for some of the visitors, the impetus to take photos is, perhaps, about adding a prestigious place to the narrative of one’s life. This is me, in Stonehenge.

We’ve all done it, in varying degrees and I’m as guilty as the next person. My photo albums include the obligatory shots taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge and New York skyline. But over the last few years I’ve begun to see how much damage tourism is doing to some places, negating any short term benefits to the local economy. Even a day in London is now an 80s video game, requiring an ability to dodge wheeled suitcase and selfie sticks coming from all directions.

Venice and Barcelona now have anti-tourist activists and while I don’t agree with all of their methods, I fully sympathise with their sense of desperation. Barcelona has always been on my bucket list, but unless things change I’ve decided that I won’t become part of the problem.

A very good article in The Guardian recently commented that “We should learn from Henry David Thoreau that one can travel as much – and develop as much as a human being – in one’s own locality as in the far-flung and exotic corners of the globe.”

It reminded me of the famous Blake verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

In fairness, he probably didn’t live in Croydon.

Picture Box No.2 – F to K

Apparently Lewes has been hotter than Havana, meteorologically if not culturally. Roads have melted, faces have turned the colour of boiled ham and people have been warned to stay indoors between midday and teatime. I have followed this advice and taken the opportunity to catch up on some new novels.

I particularly enjoyed Amanda Craig’s new book ‘The Lie of the Land’, which has the razor sharp wit of Evelyn Waugh and the compassion of Barbara Pym. It took the best part of seven years for Craig to write this successor to her wonderful 2010 novel ‘Hearts and Minds’ and it shows. Each sentence feels as if it has been the work of intense labour and the end result is a triumph.

I also really enjoyed ‘The End We Start From’ – a debut novella by the poet Megan Hunter. Written in a stark, understated prose that makes Cormac McCarthy look positively verbose, Hunter’s story avoids the cliches of the post-apocaptic genre and instead, gives a moving account of the mother-child relationship. The one downside of the prose style is that it only takes an hour or so to read.

But I digress. The point of this post is to share some of the random photos I’ve come across while I’ve been decluttering my aged laptop, so I shall begin.

By sheer coincidence, the first two photos share an uncomfortable theme:

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This is from a memoir by a senior London policeman, whose name I’ve forgotten, published around 60 years ago. The caption underneath is hideously embarrassing by today’s standards, but I expect that he had the best of intentions. Today, a man in his position would have known the correct stock phrases to use, like maintaining a dialogue, building links and community leaders.

Continuing the theme:

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This is from an episode of the 1970s BBC comedy series, ‘The Goodies’. In addition to featuring Graeme Garden ‘blacked-up’, doing an impression of Muhammad Ali, this story was also notorious for causing one of its viewers to die laughing.

The Wikipedia entry is as follows:

50-year-old Alex Mitchell could not stop laughing for a continuous 25 minute period – almost the entire length of the show – and suffered a fatal heart attack as a result of the strain placed on his heart. Mitchell’s widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making his final moments so pleasant.

Moving on, from one ism to another:

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I found this in a box of books from the 1950s. Although the book is humorous, I’m not sure how many young women would have been amused by a text that encouraged middle aged men to leer at them.

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This amused me. The phrase “Give us money, we are pretty” is absurd, but the whole entertainment and advertising industry has grown up around that premise.

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This is the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry, who has been a transvestite since his teens (can I say ‘transvestite’ any more?). When I saw this photo, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance to a picture of my mother:

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Given the current controversy about Muslim women covering their heads, this picture is a reminder that headscarves used to be a common site on the streets of Britain. My mother was always worried about the state of her ‘perm’ and if the wind reached Level 3 on the Beaufort Scale, the headscarf always came out. One of the last things my mother said to me, the night before she died, concerned the parlous state of her perm.

The next photo will only make sense if I mention that in antiquarian books the pages of illustrations are usually listed as ‘plates’, so when I saw this listing on Amazon, I was amused by the imagery, which sounded like a lively night in a Greek restaurant:

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I took the following photo at a disused cement works, in Shoreham:

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Given that these windows are at least 20 feet above ground level, someone has gone to a great deal of effort to break into a disused building and share their feelings about Stephen Fry (assuming he is the object of this person’s scorn).

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I thought that this woman’s t-shirt was unnecessarily harsh. Then I saw this:

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Perhaps they’ve just received some bad news, in which case I apologise. But I suspect that they take themselves quite seriously and need to be reminded that it’s just pop music.

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When I took this photo, I hadn’t seen ‘The Birds’ on the big screen. Since watching the film, a few weeks ago, I now feel slightly unsettled whenever I see a murder of crows.

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This is HMV in Oxford Street during the 1960s. Compared to today’s awful HMV store design, with its cheap carpets and black and pink livery, this is bright and welcoming.

But the award for the most depressing store design must go to JD Sports, which I was dragged into the other day. Dark, noisy and metallic, with staff and customers who looked as if they were on day release from a youth offenders’ institute, I felt as if I had entered a dystopian cyberpunk novel. Never again.

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This author photo from a 1920s dustjacket is the overall winner of the Young Fogey of 1929 Award. Never has one so young looked quite so old.

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This is a minor asteroid of limited interest in all but one respect: in spite of having a very weak gravitaional field, it has manged to capture a lump of rock that now orbits it like a moon. For some reason, it reminded me of East Grinstead which, although it is equally small and unexciting, now has a tiny little surburb called Felbridge within its orbit.

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This is a wonderful photo that says something about the times we live in. It is curious that in the West, an increasing number of Muslim women are choosing to dress this way, while in fundamentalist Iran, the young are pushing back the boundaries are far as they can:

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There’s been a lot of talk about role models for young men and sports stars like David Backham are often cited. But do we really want a squeaky-voiced dullard with freak show tattoos as an example of manhood at its finest? No. I would venture that Jack Hawkins is the person that all young men should aspire to be (minus the chain smoking).

The ability to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of possible danger is a quality that many of Hawkins’ contemporaries shared:

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This stamp commemorates the three Soviet cosmonauts of Soyuz 11 who, to date, are the only humans to have died in space. Personally, I would have gone for an illustration of the men before they died rather than a grisly cartoon of three corpses, but I’m not an expert in these matters.

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This is one of two photos that fell out of a book I’d found. They were taken on the coast of what is now Israel, during World War Two. With its wonky horizon and cut-off feet, it’s not a perfect picture, but I still find it very affecting. The determined look on the young RAF officer’s face contrasts with the group of smiling young women in the background.

There is a story behind this picture, but it is one that we’ll never know, which makes it all the more tantalising.

 

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The Pan covers of the 1950s and early 60s are now very collectable and thanks to the huge print runs, they are still relatively cheap. I wonder how many readers bought this version of ‘On the Road’ on the strength of its cover, only to discover that it was actually quite a dull read.

Finally, the winner of the Most Desperate Retailer in Lewes Award, sponsored by Times New Roman:

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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.

Old Fashioned Tape Recorder with Microphone Attached

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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