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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

bad joke

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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


  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a marvellously evocative set of photographs – thank you for sharing. Each one says so much – particularly the Ena Sharples. I too remember Green Shield Stamps – coming from a fairly impoverished background, I was always hoping we would save enough so I could get something. And that last image is very striking – I wonder where it comes from?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bailaolan

    Some faint echoes of the title “Coronation Street” reached the continent, however I must confess that the name Ena Sharples doesn’t mean anything to me; yet I find the picture strangely moving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steerforth

      Even if you aren’t familiar with Ena Sharples, there’s a poignancy about the image of a woman at the end of her life, looking out at a landscape that has also reached the end of its time. Her vantage point – the balcony of a new tower block – strikes a contrast with the 19th century buildings beneath.


  3. B Smith

    Those “Top Of The Pops” records (and all the varied copies that followed) were truly appalling, and yet they sold in such phenomenal numbers that one can only conclude sadly that some people really didn’t care that it wasn’t the original artists’ recording.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steerforth

      It’s baffling. I can understand people buying one album, under the impression that they were getting the original recordings, but to collect these aural attrocities beggars belief.


  4. Dale

    You’re de-cluttering! And it’s the lead story in our best-read national magazine this week, too. As well as the subject of far too many books published recently. Obviously a trend whose time has come.
    I started with the clothes last month, four suitcases full to op shops and recycling bins. Next: the books. Aaaargh. Then the difficult sundries – heaters, billiards and snooker equipment, paintings, furniture and housewares which were the grace notes of former decorating schemes or larger houses.
    As for tidying up my computer – a lost cause. The easiest way is to arrange a hard drive crash every couple of years. Amazing how little of it one misses when records prove to be irretrievable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steerforth

      Yes, I remember your hard drive crashing. It may be a small consolation, but your experience prompted me to save all my important stuff to an external hard drive, so you have saved at least one person from going through the same ordeal.


  5. Rog

    Wonderfuly eclectic and bizarre collection Steerforth. I think you need the dystopian filing system in your back room!
    Love the Ena Sharples and the recording booth reminded me of a brilliant version of “Summer Holiday” with me, my mum and brother in Southend.


    • Steerforth

      I imagine that the filing machine would be good fun for half an hour or so. I only hope that this man used it occasionally, but perhaps that was his entire job: “Colin, can I have Beacham, David S, Acacia Avenue, Royal Leamington Spa, 1949 please?”


  6. Martin

    Excellent post, Steerforth. I had a cassette player/recorder that looked very similar to yours. I believe it had “Elizabethan” in script font, somewhere just above the operating buttons. Like you, I am fascinated by the hands of babies. My one clear recollection of busy day on which our daughter was born, is the moment I stroked the back of her hand with my finger, and how she responded by turning her hand palm upwards to clutch it.


    • Steerforth

      My first few days of fatherhood were a magical time, before the crushing reality of sleepless nights, teething and vomiting set in. I once received third degree burns from an uncovered hot water bottle that my wife pushed against my leg in her sleep (at least, that’s her story), as we were both so tired, neither of us woke up. I had to have the wound dressed every day for months. Happy days!


  7. Allen

    I think the filing system was in a West German ministry in the 1960s.
    I’ll have a bash with the Google image search and see.


  8. Pete

    Holy moly. If that’s A-E, then by Z you’ll have the best coffee table book ever. Consider this my pre-order!

    I’m honestly overwhelmed by the array, but will offer these comments (in decreasing order of smartaleckness):

    1) When you were standing there in the rain beneath the Leaning Tower of Books, could you sense any metaphorical significance?

    2) This monsieur was pleased not to receive any of those “pullovers” for Father’s Day.

    3) Speaking of which: that finger-clutching photo hit me most squarely, Sir, in the feels. Nigh on four years ago, I introduced myself thusly, proffering a salutatory pinkie to Twins 1 & 2 each as they lay wrapped up in tubes and wires in their incubator beds. Minute perfection indeed.


    • Steerforth

      When the books were towering above me, wobbling on a partly broken tailgate, I did think that if I died this way, nobody would be able to recall my demise without laughing.

      I imagined that the delivery drivers went through some vigorous health and safety training, but he simply asked me to stand underneath and push my arms against the pallet to stop it wobbling, as if I possessed Bionic Man capabilities.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Georgie Wickham

    The picture of Ena Sharples is marvellous – one era ending and, her expression implies, a much less satisfactory one beginning. I also liked the picture of you cycling – the colours and haziness make it feel like a C19th watercolour of Italy – apart from the bikes, of course!


    • Steerforth

      At the time I was quite cross with my friend for taking an out of focus picture (these days, I insist that all photos of me should be out of focus), but you’re right, it has a hazy, 19th century feel apart from the bikes and the CND logo.

      I used to cycle a daily circuit along the banks of the Thames, from Teddington to Richmond, and for me, the photo evokes many happy memories.


  10. travellinpenguin

    Loved Ena and all the others too. More please. No idea either about the google image search. Wonderful. Loved, loved, LOVED this post. I like the idea of a coffee table book too. Keep posting.


  11. Joan Kyler

    Wonderfully evocative photos. My heart breaks for the little boy swept off the pier. Why didn’t anyone warn him?! We had Green Stamps in the United States. It was a delight to exchange them for a cookbook or a crock pot or anything else – it was free! I very much like the last picture. It seems eerie to me.


    • Steerforth

      I don’t think any adults were around when the boy was swept away and I imagine that he and his friends were all egging each other on, unaware of the danger they were in. A terrible thing.

      I think the Green Shield stamps must have been ripped off from the US version. It’s a long time since people saved up for something like an iron (or bothered having it repaired if it broke).


  12. Roger Cole

    What a wonderful miscellany!
    The fake LP reminds me that (truly – I am not making this up) Woolworth’s had their own music label, Embassy Records, in the early 1960s. The USP was hit records re-recorded in “faithful” imitation of the original for half the price. As I recall, singles at that time were 6s 8d and their Embassy doppelgangers were 3s 4d. Of course the imitations were grotesquely horrible but Woolies got away with it to an extraordinary extent until the Beatles came along. Clapped-out, middle-aged session singers and lifeless backing musicians simply couldn’t recreate the vitality and downright otherness of the Fab Four. The Embassy Records version of She Loves You was also a white flag, though this LP shows clearly that the idea limped on elsewhere for years after.

    Back in the early 1970s, for inexplicable reasons which only ancient fellow booksellers like you, Steerforth, will recognise, I found myself accompanying Lady Collins, wife of Sir Billy Collins of the publishing house, to a Billy Graham Crusade at Oxford Town Hall. We had eaten a shepherd’s pie supper at the vicarage of St Aldate’s Church at the table of the Rev Michael Green. He was introducing Graham and was a particularly toe-curling example of the trendy vicar – uncomfortable now because Graham was a Nixon supporter and Viet Nam was current. I mention all this only because at some point in the evening as we sat in the balcony with Graham ranting and raving below, Lady Collins opened her huge and capacious handbag and I saw that it was stuffed to the brim with Green Shield stamps. I was amazed. It hadn’t occurred to me that rich people collected them too.

    That is one fantastic picture of Violet Carson as Ena. Before she was Ena, she was at the piano on the Light Programme in Have a Go Joe with Wilfred Pickles, I think at some point in her pomp as Ena, she was asked to switch on the Blackpool Illuminations – then, as now, a great showbiz honour. But they wanted her to wear the hair net and she refused to appear in character with it. I don’t know whether it went ahead but she wasn’t great on being associated with Ena to the detriment of her other work. She was actually quite posh – or affected to be so.


    • Dale

      Lady Collins accompanied her husband to New Zealand on a business trip in the 1970s. A publisher told me that, while driving 500 miles or so down the North Island, she had made her chauffeur stop and bury every flattened possum they saw on the roads, while she said a few Christian words to send them into their next life. This would be quite a challenge in some areas where possums and cars abound.

      Twenty years later, another publisher told me the story was untrue.

      Puiblishers, eh? Can’t live with ’em, can’t strangle ’em.


      • Steerforth

        Some people are real spoilsports. I remember a similar story about Geoffrey Dickens MP, which I told for years before discovering that it was probably untrue.


    • Steerforth

      @Roger – I think the cover version LPs with the ‘dolly bird’ on the front limped on until 1983, when ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ appeared. It was also the time that ‘Legs and Co’ disappeared from ‘Top of the Pops’, so while sexual intercourse may have begun in 1963, cheesy sexism ended in 1983. I don’t know why. Was it the new conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher, AIDS or a reaction to all things 1970s? It was a lousy time to enter adulthood.

      I love the image of Lady Collins’s Green Shield-filled handbag – I can believe that, but I can’t imagine her queuing up with the hoi polloi to hand in her completed book. Perhaps she gave them as tips.


  13. zmkc

    So enjoyed. Bit disappointed Green Shield has gone out of business as I have been hoarding some of their stamps for years.
    Re electrical leads, I am sending you a picture of a New Yorker cartoon on Twitter


    • Steerforth

      I loved the cartoon, which wasn’t that much of an exaggeration in my case. As far as your Green Shield stamps are concerned, I’d hang on to them. When the economy collapses, they will be rarer than gold.


  14. Lucille

    What a great miscellany – although the boy on the pier stopped me for minutes. My mother collected GreenShield stamps at home. It was one of our many jobs, to stick them in the books. They also collected cigarette coupons and it is a measure of how much they smoked that they earned enough for a huge canteen of cutlery and some blue floral china. I couldn’t bear to keep any of this after they both died of smoking related illnesses.
    The leads have been reduced and confined to a box in the garage with labels. They will never be disinterred but apparently this was as ruthless as people were prepared to be.


    • Steerforth

      I wonder how many people suffered from a premature demise as a result of trying to collect enough smoking coupons? It seems utterly bizarre today that smoking could have been encouraged in this manner, but perhaps no worse than the adverts of the 70s that suggested that one became more sophisticated and sexually attractive, if one smoked a certain brand.

      The only time I had a lead purge I threw away a vital cable, so I haven’t dared tamper with them since.


      • Roger Cole

        Cigarette coupons ran alongside an even more bizarre collecting tradition in the 1950s. Trex was a leading brand name in lard. To be clear, it was lard. They had a jolly advertising character called Tubby Trex and issued regular Tubby Trex cookery books, of which my mother had several. To lure us kids into the ways of lard, they also ran a Tubby Trex Collectors’ Club where cards answering questions of the moment like “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why don’t we fall off the earth in Australia?” stunned youthful minds with their lard-based educational insights, The key advertising message to young lardophiles portrayed Tubby in his chef’s whites and big floppy chef’s hat surrounded by adoring children and a speech bubble saying: “I’ll be seeing you – on every packet of TREX! Your old friend, Tubby!”


  15. leeparis

    My favourite Ena Sharples (or I should say Violet Carson) story involves her role in the BBCs An Age of Kings (1960) where she portrays the formidable Duchess of York , the mother of King Richard III. She left the set early and went home (by bus I seem to recall) under the mistaken impression that her bit was over which explains why the play seems somewhat truncated in this version. An Age of Kings is well worth viewing if only to see the very youthful Sean Connery (Hotspur), Robert Hardy (Henry V) and Judi Dench (Queen Katherine).


  16. BookBarmy

    What a wonderful collection. I agree with previous comment, you could make them into a photo book for yourself. The little boy on the pier is beautiful and haunting at the same time. My heart breaks…


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