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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Of course, there are occasions when one should hang up one’s jacket and prepare to pull up one’s sleeves, very slightly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
This 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:
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is this the same woman, but taken before the war? It’s very difficult to tell.
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.
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.
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.
I recently found a batch of photographs from the 1950s, all of which feature theatrical performances. There’s very little information on the backs, but I’m almost certain that they show the work of an amateur dramatics group rather than a professional one.
The clues are as follows:
- The photos were processed in the dreary London suburbs of Cheam and New Malden
- There’s quite a lot of over overacting
- The pictures look like the work of an enthusiastic amateur; many were very blurry
But I may be wrong. You decide:
This photo was printed by Cole Studios (which is still going) in New Malden – a rather drab place between Kingston-upon-Thames and Raynes Park. It now has a large Korean community, for no discernible reason (unless it reminds them of North Korea).
The set looks quite spartan, but that isn’t the case in the next picture:
This is clearly a very emotional point in the play and everyone seems to be weeping. Perhaps this is in response to an earlier scene, in which things get rather heated:
This is a little bit racy for 1950s am-dram. I don’t know what play it is, but it clearly isn’t ‘Charlie’s Aunt’. I think it was very brave of Miss Perkins in Accounts to agree to strip down to her underwear, but perhaps it was even more courageous of Brenda to wear those awful pyjamas.
In the end, everything is resolved amicably. It turns out that Miss Perkins was simply modelling for an artist and the murder weapon was a telephone directory for New Malden and Cheam. Brenda is the murdereress and she switched to the terrible pyjamas because her dress had blood on it.
It is commendable that this company were prepared to tackle gritty dramas rather than just stick to the old favourites:
Here we see a ‘kitchen sink’ drama, as evidenced by a kitchen sink and a packet of Fairy Snow. I presume that this is a challenging drama about race, as one of the cast appears to have ‘blacked-up’. I also see that the woman is wearing hair rollers to indicate that she is working class.
This is from ‘Twelfth Night’. Today we would probably say that this was part of an ‘outreach programme’ that sought to ‘create links with the local community’ or even ‘communities’. In the 1950s, they just did an open air performance and hoped that it didn’t rain.
This is from a production of ‘Call Me Madam’. I find the rictus grin of the man in the middle slightly offputting.
I have no idea what this play is, but I don’t think it’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
However, this is:
In this production, the weeping middle-aged man at the piano has been transformed into a sprightly young buck. I wonder if a stripey blazer would do the same for me?
I’m struck by how much hard work must have gone into the stage set and the costumes. I never used to notice these things until I met my wife’s family, who worked in the theatrical world. Her father was the lighting designer for the London Coliseum, but although he was highly regarded by his peers, his work was rarely mentioned in reviews.
Since then, I’ve always taken more interest in the details.
Once again, I have no idea what this is. I can only tell you that it isn’t ‘Look Back in Anger’.
And now, the show is over and it’s time to take a curtain call:
I have just closed my bookselling business. It limped along like a consumptive war veteran for five inglorious years before I decided to call it a day. My remaining stock now lies in a cowshed being slowly consumed by cobwebs and mould.
The business wasn’t a complete failure. I managed to sell over 12,000 books and in the early days, worked in an idyllic rural setting with a group of people that included one of the cast of ‘The Archers’. Sadly, I then made the mistake of moving to a remote, malodorous farmyard, where the pleasant bleating of sheep was replaced by the agonised cries of frustrated bulls sodomising each other.
I shared my new unit with four Polish alcoholics, all of whom liked to get drunk within the first hour and race around in a fork lift truck, seeing how close they could get to my shed without crashing into it. It wasn’t quite the antiquarian bookselling idyll that I’d envisaged.
In the end, it wasn’t the bulls or the Poles that finished me off, or even the menagerie of rats, robins, minks, newts, spiders and toads that shared my premises. It was the simple problem of obtaining stock from a recycling industry that found it more cost-effective to bin their old books and sell them to waste paper merchants.
I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry that it’s over. When, during one wet, wintry morning last year, I was almost crushed to death by a one tonne delivery of books, I couldn’t help thinking that there must be easier ways to earn a living.
The next few months will be spent disposing of my stock and fixtures and if I come across any interesting books or abandoned photographs, I will share them here.
I’ll begin with some lost photos, all of which have come from different sources. Most of them have no dates or places, which is both tantalising and frustrating.
A timeless scene like this is hard to date, but at a guess I’d say it was taken between the late 40s and early 50s. The rather bland building must have been fairly new then.
The two people who interest me are the waiter and the airman, both of whom are outsiders in this setting. The airman appears to regard the scene with an attitude that could range from simple indifference to outright contempt. (I’m assuming that he’s an airman. For all all know, he could be from the Dutch navy)
These women are celebrating qualifying as the runners-up in a ‘Ladies Darts League’, somewhere in the Birmingham area during, I would guess, the late 1950s. I’m particularly drawn to the older woman, who almost appears to be snarling at the camera. Perhaps she had her heart set on the First Prize.
I’ve also noticed that the woman in the back row – second from the left – bears more than a passing resemblance to Cherie Blair.
The next photo appeared perfectly innocuous, then I read the writing on the back:
I can’t begin to imagine the story that lies behind these chilling words.
I like this photo because it is nothing more than a snapshot, but fills me with a longing to be a passenger on that ship, sipping cocktails as the sun sets on the British Empire. In reality, a cruise ship would be my idea of hell.
This setting, in Knott End, Lancashire, offers slightly less glamour than the 1930s cruise liner. Indeed, I think that the woman might be sitting on part of a disgarded sewerage outflow pipe.
And that ends this rather inauspicious beginning to my new blog. I had planned something quite different, involving my mother and her friends talking about their memories of World War Two. The aim was for something a little more ‘multimedia’, with podcasts and links to Instagram and Twitter.
My mother had got as far as gaining her friends’ agreement to take part, but then she ruined everything by dying. Now I’m quite rudderless.
However, after waiting in vain for the right moment to begin a new blog, I have decided to just get on with it.