Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Role of Women

Today I found some curious documents in a book published in 1947. Headed CLERICAL POSTS IN BRANCH "B" OF THE FOREIGN SERVICE, it gave details about joining the Civil Service.

The starting salary for 'both boys and girls at age 16 or 17' was listed as £150 per year. I have no idea whether that was good or bad in those days, but I suspect the latter. The document then mentioned annual increments and I was appalled to see this:

In the middle four grades, the highest salary a woman can earn is still less than the entry level for a man. How motivating, and yet that attitude would have seemed entirely reasonable in 1947.

Even twenty years later, things hadn't changed that much. I remember my mother telling me that she was awarded a 'dowry' when she left the Civil Service to get married.

On another piece of paper, I saw some details about the Civil Service Entrance Exam, which tested the literacy, numeracy and IQ of all applicants:

Why did the examiners need to be aware of the exam candidate's gender? I can understand some sort of positive discrimination in favour of ex-servicemen, as many of them had an awful time when they returned to civilian life, but why identify women? What's even scarier is that the Civil Service was probably one of the more forward-thinking employers of the time.

Harry Enfield's parodies of 1930s public information films are clearly humorous, but sometimes they are uncomfortably close to the truth:

Of course it's all different now. Women are still frequently paid less, but nobody dares to put it in writing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

An important message from Ray Craft...

I won't bore you with the reasons, but I've spent most of this week in a warehouse dealing with hundreds of boxes of books. It's the hardest I've ever worked. To make things worse, on Friday I was subjected to eight hours of Michael Jackson.

This can't be right. I'm a white collar worker and have the cut-glass accent to prove it. I'm sure there isn't anything in my contract about this. On the plus side, at least the lads in the warehouse now call me 'mate'. I shall miss them when I'm back in the office.

Out of the thousands of books that I looked at last week, I found a disappointingly small number of unusual bookmarks. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

What is the meaning of this post-it note? I have no idea and wish that I could ask its former owner, a Mr T Bicker.

No cycle clips? He'll get grease on those immaculately-pressed trousers.

In the days when the word 'zany' wasn't used in a sneering, post-modern, ironic way, this man was regarded as the zaniest radio presenter of his time. Like Rock Hudson, Denholm Elliot and Jimmy Edwards, he was 'outed' in the most traumatic way of all.

This piece of paper single-handedly solves the Mystery of the Garish Trays. Once they were ubiquitous. Now they're as rare as honest MPs.

I'm proud to say that I achieved the lowest mark for Welsh in the history of the University of Wales. My college was in a Welsh-speaking area and as a goodwill gesture, I decided to learn the local language. It was a disaster.

If you've ever wondered why people aren't addicted to drugs any more, here is the answer.

It was all going terribly well until they mentioned the Excellent Toilet Facilities.

Attention all colonials! Please send regular supplies of chocolate to the Mother Country (if you're in Canada, we will accept male syrup).

And finally, the important message from Ray Craft...

What events led to the suspension of the 'Bisquit Club'? I love notices like this because they refute all of those people who moan about the declining standards of English.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rovering to Success

My nine-year-old son has just had a sex education lesson at school and seems to be quite traumatised by the experience. I'm not surprised. I have vague childhood memories of watching a video of a baby being born and I can't say that I particularly enjoyed it. It's even worse for the girls, who now know what's in store for them if they want to have a family.

Why are schools so intent on teaching young children about sex? I appreciate that the Government want to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, but is scaring the hell out of small children the answer?

When I was nine I had no interest in how babies were made and several days after seeing a sex education video, I forgot everything I'd seen. I spent another few years in blissful ignorance, convinced that I'd popped out of my mother's navel.

Then adolescence arrived.

Within days I seemed to go from not thinking about sex at all to being obsessed by it. I wanted to know what this big, grown-up secret was all about and used to sneak downstairs to watch Jean-Luc Goddard films on BBC2 (you can always rely on the French for superfluous nudity). I thought I was being discreet but my parents must have noticed because one day, my father handed me a book saying 'This helped me when I was your age.'

The book was called 'Rovering to Success' and it was written by the founder of the Cub-Scout Movement, Lord Baden-Powell. The book was over 50 years old. I hated old things, but out of respect I started to flick through the chapters. This is what I saw:

It came as no surprise to discover, some years later, that Baden-Powell's marriage was not a conventional one.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Another Day in Paradise...

I found a rather enigmatic book of photographs yesterday. It was called Mostecko and was entirely in Czech, with no publication date. At first I couldn't see the point of the book, but I gradually realised that that it was about the building of a new town.

The fashions clearly pointed to the late 1970s, but given that the setting was communist Czechoslovakia, it could have been as late as 1982. This was during a time when Czechoslovakia was one of the most hardline regimes in eastern Europe, so this book is not only a souvenir but also a work of propaganda.

Although my Czech is a little poor, the layout of the photographs created a fairly straightforward visual narrative and the book seemed to be heralding Mostecko as some sort of socialist utopia. Here are a few examples:

How nice to live somewhere where you can stand in the middle of the road without getting knocked down by a car

Making Polonium 210, to deal with the enemies of socialism

The bustling heart of the New Town district

This man used to be Professor of Philosophy at Brno University, but following a slightly critical article he wrote about the 33rd Party Congress, he has been demoted to operating the sausage roll-making machine in Mostecko

Mostecko's residents had to wait years for their Skodas and they've already broken down

Didn't the book's editors notice that the boy in the background is painting some sort of psychotic, Munchesque face?

A special tram line built to take relatives to visit political prisoners in the nearby gulag

'I am sorry comrade, but the Central Committee have decided that Dr Seuss is an imperialist lackey. Your daughter must only read books that are on the new list.'

Perhaps I am doing Mostecko a disservice, but the overall effect is of a socialist Purgatory. Why is nobody smiling? The pictures may have been intended as propaganda, but they tell a different story.

If I lived in the Mostecko of the 1980s, I think I'd have to develop a serious drinking problem to cope with the excitement of living there. I wonder what it's like today?

Mostecko does have an Old Town district, which if this picture is anything to go by, isn't quite the bustling metropolis it might once have been:

In fairness, there are some awful new towns in England and I'm told that the suburbs of Paris are an object lesson in how not to design a place for people to live. Why is it that planned towns are usually so vastly inferior to those that have evolved over time?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ex Libris

I found this Ex Libris bookplate today. I wonder if this union led to the creation of the Cadbury's Cream Egg?

A quick search on Google reveals that Sir Egbert was a World War One air ace who shot down two Zeppelins over the North Sea.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lost and Found

More impromptu bookmarks and images that caught my eye during the last few days.

To begin with, you may remember that last week I was bemoaning my disastrous, life-threatening trips abroad. I have now found the perfect solution:

This photo fell out of a 1930s copy of Peter and Wendy. As usual, there were no names or date, but the quality of the colour and hairstyles suggest the mid-1960s.

Another utterly beautiful engraving from an utterly worthless children's book.

This is part of a poem that fell out of a book on wildfowl. I haven't reproduced the whole poem, but I'll happily send you a copy (or even the original).

Gary Cooper, from a 1946 filmgoers' annual. A surperb portrait with a strikingly contemporary feel to it.

I saw a shirt like that in Primark.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

'The Past is a Foreign Country...'

From Claude Mauger's French Grammar, published 347 years ago, some useful phrases in French and their English equivalent:

A few pages later, there is a wonderful section on chatting-up women. It includes phrases like:

'Madame, if I had that good fortune that my company should be unto you as agreeable to yours is to me, I should have attained the last period of my hopes.'

Enchanting. You can almost forget the syphyllitic lotharios of reality, dodging emptied chamber pots in the more lugubrious parts of London.

And for those of you who wish that you could be transported back in time to the England of Jane Austen, here's an extract I found from an 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

Obviously one item needs no comment, but I'm also less than impressed by the 'jeering name for an ugly blind man.'

We may live in the age of reality television, Hello magazine and 'collateral damage', but I still feel fortunate to be living in our vacuous, globally-warmed world, for all its faults.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

This week's discoveries...

Robin Cook (aka Derek Raymond), circa 1960. The word louche was invented for men like him.

I've discovered a lot of children's books with beautiful engravings, like this one. The books are often worthless and it pains me to think that these images are destined for oblivion.

The title page of a 1930s edition of the London Mercury - a magazine devoted to the fine arts - now sadly long defunct. This issue had some fine woodcuts, including the one below:

I found a Victorian mongram album yesterday. I'd no idea what a mongram was, but it appears to be what we would now call a logo. The album contained hundreds of mongrams, including regiments, Oxbridge colleges, hotels, shipping companies and Government departments. The album managed to be both incredibly dull and extremely fascinating at the same time. Here is one of my favourites:

An extract from a novel by my dad's favourite writer - Percy F Westerman. Dad's jingoistic attitudes used to exasperate me in my teens, but later I realised that his generation had been a little brainwashed. To quote my father's geography teacher: 'This is a map of the world. All the bits that are pink are British, and the rest don't matter.' My father's tragedy was that his world view was obsolescent before he'd even reached his mid-20s.

An engraving from the 1953 Penrose Annual - a review of the graphic arts.

This castle isn't part of the National Trust.

Another illustration from the Penrose Annual.

A typically maudlin, sentimental Victorian engraving. The parents are telling the girl that they can't afford a PS3.

This is from the cover of a book called 'Make Your Own Beer and Cider', but it looks as if the three people on the right are trying to make the young woman get drunk enough to join in a gangbang.

This is just a small selection of the gems that arrive in my office. I will never Twitter, but if it enabled me to easily share images with you the moment I saw them, I might be tempted.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Don't go there...

Eleven years ago I was sitting in an aeroplane, 500 miles of the coast of Brazil, when there was a sudden jolt. Drinks were spilt and people laughed nervously. Just as the atmosphere was returning to normal, there was another jolt and the plane started to shake. The fasten seatbelts sign came on and the Argentinian pilot cheerfully announced that we had merely 'heet a leedle beet of tarrbulence'.

I wasn't convinced. I had experienced turbulence before and this was somethinq quite different, but the cabin crew seemed to be taking it all in their stride so I returned to my book. However the turbulence got worse and I noticed that a deathly quiet had replaced the animated chatter of the plane's mostly South American passangers. Was this it? Were we going to plunge to a watery grave in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? After the terrible events of last week, perhaps it wasn't such a ridiculous question.

I have been scared of flying ever since and although I haven't completely succumbed to my phobia, I don't go out of my way to travel by plane. However, rationally I know full well that it isn't travelling to another country that's dangerous. The trouble really starts when you've arrived.

Some people have the irritating ability to assimilate themselves effortlessly into new countries. By the end of the first day, they have a local bar. By the second, they've been invited for a meal, successfully bartered their way in the local market and climbed a nearby mountain. Their laidback bonhomie is the WD40 of social intercourse (and probably sexual, too).

When I travel my trips are marked by a succession of minor mishaps and near-death encounters which, in most cases, don't even amount to a half-decent anecdote.

I have been stalked by a mountain lion, had my car reduced to a small cube by a huge truck on an ill-fated trip to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock filmed The Birds), dumped on a larva field in the middle of nowhere by a malevolent taxi driver and almost crushed under the wheels of a bus in Chile.

All of these things happened because I was clueless about my surroundings. I arrived with my own preconceptions about how things worked and naively assumed that the British way of doing things was based on some universal law of common sense, rather than being a variation on a theme. Most of the time, this ignorance resulted in minor frustrations, but occasionally I made near-fatal errors.

So flying isn't the problem. It's being abroad. I suppose I should take the hint and stay at home.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Something old...

A tatty, leather-bound book on French grammar turned up yesterday:

According to Bonham's it isn't worth auctioning as there are a few pages are missing at the back, but I'm sure I won't have any problem selling it.

When this book was published, there were people still alive who had met Shakespeare and future events, like the founding of the United States and the French Revolution, were at least 100 years away. Just holding the book gives me a strange, tingly feeling.

How strange to think that until last year, it would have ended up on a landfill site.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bookshop Customers (No.2 in an occasional series): the Self-Help Reader

If you bought a washing machine that failed to clean your clothes, you would feel entirely justified in demanding a replacement or, at the very least, a repair. In today's consumer society, we expect products to work. When they don't, it is regarded as an aberration.

However, these rules don't seem to apply to self-help books. I remember selling a one or two self-help books a week to the same woman for nearly three years. She must have bought over 200 books from me on a variety of subjects. She ran with the wolves, did the dance of anger, walked along the road less travelled and discovered that she was from Venus, but after two years she didn't seem any better for it.

I had similar experiences in other bookshops. Women (for it was always women) would religiously (or irreligiously) buy one self-help book after another without displaying any discernible change. This seemed strange, given the books' grandiose claims. Normally, if you buy something that doesn't work, you don't make the same mistake again.

The typical self-help customer hasn't been to university. They are in their mid-30s or older and have lived long enough to experience a creeping disillutionment with their lot. Perhaps their kids don't understand them and the young Adonis they married is now Homer Simpson. They have no intention of walking out, so their focus is on how to make life more bearable.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. Perhaps these books were so effective that the customers simply wanted more, or maybe their angels told them. Either way, it sounds like money for old rope if you're a publisher and I'm amazed how successful self-help and MBS (Mind, Body and Spirit) books are.

And why is it nearly always women who buy these books? My wife's theory is that it's because they live with men. I'm not quite sure how to take that.