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.
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.