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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
I took the following photo at a disused cement works, in Shoreham:
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).
I thought that this woman’s t-shirt was unnecessarily harsh. Then I saw this:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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: