Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cecil Beaton

The last week has been a revelation. I had no idea how early colour plates started to appear in books and I've discovered some wonderful Victorian natural history titles with stunning illustrations. However, the most impressive find has been the Cecil Beaton Scrapbook:

Published in 1937, the production values are ahead of their time and the quality of the images is extremely good:

Is Katharine Hepburn giving a Nazi salute?

Beaton's scrapbook is full of weird and wonderful photomontages, watercolours and sketches, but equally enjoyable is the text, which is refreshingly indiscreet and occasionally quite bitchy. Compared to most of the books published in the 1930s, Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook is remarkably modern.

It's also interesting to read a book that is largely about celebrities and compare Beaton's witty, intelligent and stylish scrapbook to Heat and Hello magazines.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I hate listening to the news on my way to work. Every day we are presented with the same news stories about corrupt politicians, suicide bombers and businesses going bust. It's frustrating for everyone. I've just bought a device that will allow me to play podcasts in my car and after that, I'll never have to listen to the Today programme again.

On this morning's news, we were told that a deadly pandemic might have broken out because OVER 100 PEOPLE HAVE DIED IN MEXICO! Experts were quizzed about the implications this could have for the rest of the world and the story was spun-out for as long as possible.

At no point did anyone point out that Mexico has a population of 110,000,000, making the death rate for Swine Flu is less than one in a million (car deaths account for around 200 people per million).

Oh no, let's not spoil the story.

I don't wish to seem blasé about a possible flu epidemic, but this isn't exactly the 1918 pandemic, which famously claimed more lives than World War One.

I wonder if the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 is responsible for this bizarre notice which I recently found pasted in a1920s book that used to belong to St Martin's Lane Lending Library:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sexual intercourse began in 1963...

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

After the last few days, I'm inclined to agree with Philip Larkin. I have spent the last few days sifting through thousands of old books and it's remarkable how so many of the jacket designs of the 1960s were obsessed with sex.

The 1950s covers have pouting women with pneumatic breasts, gazing longingly at a rugged hero, but they seem comparatively chaste. The sixties jackets leave far less to the imagination.

Here are a few examples:

It starts innocently enough with a snog in a sportscar, but then things progress quickly...

Although the girl is almost naked, the man is scratching his head in a perplexed manner. He's so 1950s. Eventually he gets the message and a tryst in a beach-hut cements their relationship. Naturally, they get engaged...

A wedding takes place. The dress is made entirely out of artificial fibres, which almost ignite as the evening progresses. The happy couple move into a new townhouse, complete with driveway and garage.

Married life begins well. A combination of valium and alcohol help to distract Daisy from the utter futility of her existence, but she still craves excitement. When some new people move into their modern cul-de-sac, life becomes more interesting...

Daisy is soon 'in the club' in more ways than one, but who is the father?

It is fascinating to witness the sexual revolution of the 1960s through contemporary book jackets, but it's equally interesting to see the growing backlash of the following decade. At first, the 1970s seemed like the über-sixties, but by the end the nipples were back in unburned bras and the world was run by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


One of the most unsettling experiences of my life happened when I was 18, browsing through the shelves of my college library. A book caught my eye and I started to flick through it. Suddenly, halfway through the book, a photograph fell out and floated down to the floor. I picked it up and to my horror, it was of me.

My heart started pounding and I quickly put the book back, making sure that I kept the photo. I went outside and took deep breaths. Only later did I realise that I had borrowed the book a year earlier and used a photo as a bookmark.

I mention this because I have spent today flicking through dozens of secondhand books and found several photos that were used as bookmarks. This one is my favourite:

We're used to seeing individual passport photos of people, but there is something terribly private about a sequence, where we can see the subject trying to strike the right pose, experimenting with different moods. The man above appears both ridiculous and touchingly vulnerable.

This young woman clearly isn't comfortable having her picture taken and is nervously biting her lower lip. Is she still alive today, I wonder?

This bookmark is dated 1959 on the other side. It is only a fragment, but there is enough to see that it is an advert for the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's favourite film star, Norman Wisdom.

On this scrap of paper, someone has gone to the effort of copying out the last paragraph of a novel just below the actual text.

Here is the only real bookmark I found all day, imploring the British to use their new National Health Service - TOWARDS A FITTER BRITAIN. I wonder what the founders of the NHS would make of today's obesity epidemic?

"Charlie" she exclaimed impulsively. "I do not mean to vex you."

I love these tantalising glimpses into lost lives, but in future I'll take great to make sure that I don't unwittingly contribute to the archive. My photos will remain in the drawer.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ordinary Lives

My mother has just been to stay. She is a 79-year-old pensioner who has very different ideas to me and I suspect that I am something of an enigma to her, however she is pleased that I have a 'nice speaking voice'.

It would be easy for me to sneer at her kitsch loo-roll holder with a doll on the top and her views about the 'coloureds', but she is a product of her time. She had a hard life and although she achieved one of the best Eleven Plus results in the borough, my mother never had the benefit of a good education. Since the days of my judgemental teens, I have learned to bite my tongue.

Also, if I'd lived my mum's life, I wouldn't have lasted five minutes.

She had me relatively late in life and there were times when I wished that my parents weren't so old. However, these days I feel fortunate to be able to listen to mother's accounts of growing up in the 1930s and her experiences of life in the Blitz.

I asked my mother to write down her childhood memories and initially she didn't seem too keen on the idea, but a few weeks later a letter arrived in the post containing several pages of spidery handwriting.

Here are a few extracts:

'We lived in a top floor flat and it was a squash. I was the youngest of four. We three girls were in a double bed in Mum and Dad's room. They had to sleep in a 3' 6" bed in the box room, so small you could just get a chest of drawers, a small chair and the bed in. My brother slept in the room only used for Christmas and company. There was no bathroom, so the tin bath came out every Friday night and we washed, checked our hair for fleas and had a dose of syrup of figs to clear the system. Our kitchen was tiny, but we lived in this room.

During the War we all had shelters and every night, for many nights, we had to get out of bed as the siren went and we'd hear the bombs dropping. The 'all-clear' would sound at about 6am and we'd go up to bed for a short sleep before going to school.

One night a bomb dropped on the railway line just yards away and we were woken up to get out of our houses immediately and get to a church hall at the end of the road. There were about 160 of us. We sat there all night and they came round with bread and marge in the morning. We went to my grandma's the next night. She wasn't very pleased, but there was nowhere else to go.

When the area was declared safe, a collection was made for the men who defused the bomb. It came to £2, which didn't seem much for the men who had saved our lives. These men were never recognised for their bravery.

One morning we went to school and found that my sister's best friend - Stella Danby - was killed with her mother and sisters. The father and little boy survived. My sister was inconsolable. It wasn't unusual to arrive in the classroom and see an empty desk.

We had our fair share of bombs and one night the local graveyard was hit. The next day we collected shrapnel and bits of tombstones as souvenirs. My mother was very religious and when she found my collection I was punished severely.

I didn't enjoy school. During the war there was a shortage of teachers and some old maids who had started when Queen Victoria was on the throne were bought out of retirement. They were very severe. Also, when the sirens kept going off, everything had to stop. My sister was in the middle of an exam and had to continue in the shelter.

Food was rationed during the War. We could not get fruit and vegetables were scarce. I was always hungry. We used to love the tins of Spam that came from America. It wasn't like the Spam they have today.

We had a prisoner of war camp for Italians near us. When Italy joined our side the prisoners were free to come and go as they pleased. Quite soon, there were a lot of dark haired babies being born. I remember my aunt looking at a baby and saying "You can tell 'es an Eytie - eyes as black as sloes".'

Last year I read a fascinating book called London at War. I was particularly struck by people's accounts of how hungry they were and how their malnourishment made them vulnerable to colds and flu. Did this tally with my mother's memories? She had never mentioned being terribly hungry. I phoned Mum and she seemed surprised by the question: of course she was always hungry. If she hadn't mentioned the hunger, that was because there was nothing extraordinary about it.

Hopefully, my mother may live for another ten or fifteen years, but just because she's relatively healthy at the moment, I'm not going to take her for granted. Over the years she has told me a lot of stories and I'm going to make sure that they aren't forgotten.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Freud Ego

I was sorry to read that Sir Clement Freud has just died. I always enjoyed listening to his lugubrious voice and dry, acerbic wit. His autobiography, Freud Ego, is one of the most enjoyable memoirs I've read.

One of my favourite anecdotes from the book is from Freud's National Service days in the Royal Army, when Freud laboured under the misapprehension that a Private Young was actually Private Jung. It's a slight anecdote, but Freud makes the most of it and the soldier's baffled response to Freud's quip about the likelihood of having a Freud and a Jung in the same platoon is priceless.

To Freud's credit (and to the reader's frustration), he barely mentions his grandfather. Sigmund Freud is remembered fondly as a grandfather who never forgot Clement's birthday, but there are no earth-shattering anecdotes. Clement Freud lived a remarkable enough life without having to trade on his family connections.

Naturally, Freud Ego is out of print (although an optimistic dealer is selling a copy on Amazon for the eccentric price of £143.54). However, I wouldn't be too surprised if there is a reprint.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

One good reason for watching 'Britain's Got Talent'

'Embedding disabled by request', apparently. However if you click on the screen it'll take you to the original YouTube site:

Apparently, Susan is now getting offers of work from the USA, prompting the Sun headline: Susan's Gone Virgin Atlantic.

John Self is already threatening to begin the Susan Boyle backlash.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Last Thursday in Rye...

Some towns announce themselves with huge signs which inform the visitor that an illustrious historical figure used to live there. Crowborough - a dull, uninteresting town in Sussex - boasts that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived there for 22 years, whilst in Worthing there is a blue plaque commemorating the place where Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest (although the original building has been replaced by an outstanding ugly block of flats).

Rye doesn't need bother with any of this. Although it only has a population of 4,000, it has been home to more writers and artists than most cities I can think of. Every time I visit the town I find something new:

Radclyffe Hall's door knocker

I started reading The Well of Loneliness once, but for all its importance as a seminal work of lesbian fiction, it was incredibly dull.

Victorian post box

Tudor townhouse

I also discovered that one of my favourite artists - Paul Nash - lived in Rye for a while. Like Eric Ravilious, he manages to capture the essence of the southern English landscape without reducing it to twee, sentimental, postcard scenes.

However, perhaps his greatest work comes from Nash's work as an official war artist during the Second World War:

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) is an incredibly powerful painting and when I first saw it in the Tate Gallery at the age of 17, I was blown away. I knew nothing about art and only went to the Tate because a friend suggested it. I was expecting to be bored by old masters and incomprehensible abstracts. How wrong I was.

It's frustrating to learn how many paintings are stored away in the basement of the Tate Britain. The situation has obviously improved since the opening of the Tate Modern, but surely every work should be made accessible to the public.

How about a Lewes Tate? With shops closing every week and the county council threatening to move their headquarters, Lewes could do with a new attraction. We've just been included in the new South Downs National Park, which is fantastic news for the town. However, I doubt whether this will bring many tourists and daytrippers to Lewes. We need a world class art gallery.

We have a very good rail connection:

It's a winner. I shall write to Sir Nicholas this very moment.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The light at the end of the tunnel...

After a year of being unemployed I have a new job. I received the good news this morning and although I should feel elated, the whole thing feels quite unreal because the job is almost too good to be true.

I will be working with an internet bookseller, setting up a project to ensure that charities are not losing revenue from failing to identify rare and collectible titles that have been donated to their shops. In other words, I will be selling books for an ethical, carbon neutral company and raising money for charity.

There must be a catch somewhere.

After a year of being unemployed, this is a huge relief. When I walked out of Waterstone's I always hoped that I would find a better job reasonably quickly, but there was the nagging doubt that I might never find a decent job again. Suppose I was just crap? Maybe I'd never work again.

The financial hardships of being unemployed shouldn't be underestimated, but I agree with some recent research that was discussed on Radio Four a few weeks ago, which concluded that 80% of the stress of losing a job stemmed from the loss of status and sense of purpose. No matter what you have achieved in your working life, unless you have inexhaustible reserves of self-esteem, unemployment is an extremely demoralising experience. It is remarkable how quickly you can lose your confidence.

I tried to keep busy. In addition to having two young sons to preoccupy me, I did voluntary work as a magistrate and enrolled on a web-design course. These things helped, but none of them provided me with an answer to the dreaded question: 'What do you do?'. I felt a latent sense of guilt and shame, even though I knew it was irrational. I had paid taxes for years and was entitled to a state benefits, but I still felt uncomfortable about being one of the people who was taking.

Being unemployed was better than working for Waterstone's, but it was a Faustian pact that would have eventually ended in tears. If you are unemployed, the Government give you just about enough money to pay the bills and feed yourself, but no more. It is the death of hope.

Unfortunately, some people are so traumatised by their experiences of work that they would rather live in poverty than risk endangering their mental health. During the last year I met several who were intelligent and capable, but had been broken by their experiences. The Daily Mail would have labelled them 'dole scroungers', but they were courageous individuals who had been through the most awful experiences.

I met one young woman who had lived more in her 22 years than most people had in their entire lives. At the age of 14 she suffered from brain encephalitis and lost most of her motor functions. She had to relearn speech and at the age of 16, had the IQ of a ten-year-old. In spite of this she was sent to a tertiary college where she entered into a relationship with a man who abused her repeatedly. She eventually developed a pyschotic illness and was hospitalised for a long time.

I met her at a course that was designed to help people find work and was struck by her intelligence, humour and lack of self-pity. I have no doubt that she will find a job, but I met others who were, frankly, no-hopers. One woman was even sacked from an unpaid, voluntary job. I could see why, but on closer acquaintance she emerged as an unusual, interesting person. I couldn't help feeling that her inability to find work was an indictment of modern society which, for all its equal rights legislation and inclusivity, is less tolerant in some ways.

I have learned many things during the past year and feel richer for it, but I am extremely relieved to be back in work. More importantly, it is a job with huge potential and I think I will really enjoy it. It will be hard work, but exhilarating. Imagine: I'll spend every day rumaging through thousands of books looking for gold. Paradise.

Monday, April 06, 2009

This is what I thought the future was going to be like...

Obviously I'm relieved that we're not at war with aliens, but it's a huge disappointment that there still isn't a base on the moon. It will be the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 on July 20th.

Even more remarkably, it is now 36 years since the last manned space mission beyond low earth orbit. Instead of boldly going, we stayed at home.

I can go without the helicars, videophones and pills instead of meals. I can even go without the women in skin-tight catsuits. However, I am very disappointed that the Space Age never really took off. The way things are going, I'll be dead before anyone lands on Mars.

Apparently we have the technology to send people to Mars, but it's doubtful whether we could bring them back alive. Stalin wouldn't have worried about that and neither should we. Why not send a mission of very old people?

Think of the benefits. A low gravity environment would provide instant relief from arthritis and rheumatism. Also, if you felt that your life had largely been an unremarkable one, here would be an opportunity to achieve last-minute fame.

This wouldn't be a suicide mission as such. The aim would always be the safe return of the geriatric astronauts, but if this high-risk mission did fail there wouldn't be the same devastating shock to morale. We could say that they'd had a good innings.

I shall be submitting this idea to NASA shortly. Remember, you heard it here first.

Friday, April 03, 2009


I am still trying to understand the whole Twitter phenomenon. So many of my fellow bloggers have started Tweeting that I feel I must be missing something. Is it the Haiku of blogging?

My objections are threefold. First, I hate the idea of being almost permanently connected to the internet wherever I go. That seems only a few steps away from having a chip inserted in the cerebral cortex and saying 'We are the Borg.' Second, isn't it just an upmarket version of texting? I loathe texting with a passion and whenever I receive a message, I'll phone the sender rather than spend an eternity typing a reply. Third, I don't want to know about the minutiae of someone's daily life.

For example, yesterday Scott Pack shared this little piece of information with the world:

'Think I might get an ice cream on the walk home along the river'.

Perhaps Oscar Wilde would have been a good Tweeter, but who knows, even he may have run out of aphorisms and found himself forced to tell us what Bosie had for lunch.

However I may be completely missing the point. Today, many of us no longer enjoy the feeling of communion with either God or our fellow neighbours and as the egocentricity of youth fades, the sense of isolation increases. Is Twitter a comfort blanket?

Let's go back to Scott Pack spending half a minute typing his ice cream message. I can imagine that there is a pleasure to be derived from sharing this experience with an unknown number of friends and strangers around the world. I certainly enjoy the sense of community that comes with blogging and get excited when I realise that my words have been read by someone in Mongolia (even if they were really just after an image). Is Tweeting any different?

Therfore, in the spirit of Twitter, I am going to tweet about my morning:
  • There is a crack in the kitchen sink and the dishwasher's broken. The washing-up is in a tottering pile. Should I buy paper plates or fix it?
  • Have just bought some silicon sealant. Pretty girl in Homebase. Got sealant on my skin by accident. Am I now sealed?
  • Sink still leaking. Why?
  • Noise outside of metal scraping and man running and shouting furiously. Sounded like a fight, but in fact he tied his dog to a metal post which came loose and the dog ran away with the post.
  • Have separated pipes under sink. Horrible gelatinous gunk hidden away. So much for Mr Muscle. Feeling very manly.
  • Still leaking. Feeling less manly.
  • Looking for a plumber in the Yellow pages.
That is probably the nearest I'll ever get to Twittering, but it still holds a strange fascination for me, so I am prepared to eat my words.

P.S - I forgot to mention the new Twitter phenomenon, which was reported in the weekend papers - celebrities employing people to Tweet on their behalf. Madness.