Thursday, April 29, 2010

Victorian Londoners

I found a photograph album from the 1880s today. All of the photos were taken in London and what strikes me is how similar many of the faces look to contemporary Londoners, with the possible exception of the two ladyboys in the seventh picture:

But best of all, there is a little musical box at the end of the album. It doesn't really work, but every now and then, I can hear a faint twinkle from the other side of my office.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scouting for Boys

I know they say that children grow up too fast these days, but what about this individual, from a late 1950s "Pathfinder Annual for Scouts". Can he really be a 13-year-old boy?

There is something more sinister going on here .

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ordinary Lives

As much as I love working with books, it is the paraphernalia that comes with them which really excites me. Hidden in a novel that is trying to encapsulate the human condition, I often find a photograph or note which manages to say more in a simple image or sentence than most authors could achieve in 200 pages.

That's not a slur against writers. It's more about authenticity and intent. Photograph albums tell us so much and so little at the same time. The albums lie, in that they create a completey false impression of lives lived in perpetual happiness and sunshine, but each photo is unintentionally revealing. Behind the smiles and blue skies, there is a subtext: this is what I want my life to be.

The gulf between the people we'd like to be and who we actually are is pure Richard Yates.

Last week I came across a family's photo album, which had probably arrived at our warehouse because it was book-shaped.

The album is the story of this woman, who was a keen dog breeder:

At some point in the late 1940s, she marries a man who shares her passion for dogs and they move here:

This bungalow is typical of the poor quality, jerry-built housing that flourished in Britain until more rigorous planning legislation was introduced. Today it is next to some dog kennels. Perhaps the husband and wife were responsible for establishing their home and the kennels.

From the photo album, it is clear that dogs were almost their whole life:

Indeed, over half of the the album consists of photos of dogs. But in between breeding dogs, the couple managed to find the time to have two children: a boy and a girl. Here is their young daughter in the late 1960s:

And here is their son:

There is no discernible chronology to the album. Events in the daughter's life - graduation, marriage and the birth of a child - are presented in a random order and both children are eclipsed by the numerous photos from dog shows:

The woman and her husband must have been well-known figures in the dog breeding world and many of the photos are official portraits from shows, where they had won first prize.

Were they a happy family? Aside from the fact that the dogs seem to take centre stage in the album, there is nothing unusual about the photos of family gatherings and boating holidays. These are ordinary people who seem at ease with themelves.

But then I turned the page and saw this:

On the same page, there is a photograph of a gravestone. It is their son's.

Another newspaper cutting reads: "Our dearest son and brother died after much suffering. You were so very brave and were greatly missed."

The album ends here. There are no more pictures of dog shows or boating holidays. As far as I can tell, the couple lived for many years after their son's death, but they chose to end their album with this photo:

I had been complacently flicking through the album, enjoying the 1960s fashions and scenes from dog shows. Nothing prepared me for the shock of the final page.

I went back through the album, and photographs that had once appeared rather comical now seemed terribly poignant. These innocent, smiling faces had no idea what was in store for them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Victorian Values

Curmudgeons who moan about bloggers and Wikipedia argue that the democratic nature of the web has allowed ill-informed, ordinary people to flood the internet with their half-baked ideas. The age of the expert is behind us. We now live in a pseudo-democratic, dumbed-down world in which everyone's opinion has value ("And Colin from Nuneaton has texted us to say that he thinks that the way to stop sexual offences is for women to dress less provocatively.")

I disagree. I've tried spreading my half-baked ideas and discovered that there's always some smart alec out there who is ready to correct me. As for Wikipedia, if I dare to edit any articles without copious references to source material, it's altered within a couple of days by someone in Canada. Why Canada?

The late Victorian era was the true age of the charlatan, when anyone with a passing interest in phrenology and an impressive beard could make sweeping pronouncements about any subject that took their fancy.

Yesterday I found a wonderful book called "Vital Force, or Evils and Remedies of Perverted Sexuality" by "Prof" R. B. D. Wells, the "Practical Phrenologist" and proprietor of a "hydropathic establishment" in Scarborough. It is an utterly mad book.

The book begins with a brief description of Mr Wells' establishment which could be "reached with facility in a few minutes' walk from the Railway Station". We are told that this building has a "commanding view of the surrounding scenery" and can accomodate 250 patients and visitors. "Those ordering Mr Wells' books should make postal orders and cheques payable to R. B. D. Wells. The telegraphic and postal address is Professor Wells, Scarborough."

What sort of people did Professor Wells treat? Certainly not this gentleman:

In my day, these people were called students. In the Professor's time, louche characters like this were beyond his help, as were these sorry specimens from the underclass:

However, Professor Wells was able to offer treatment to paying gentlemen like these:

It's not all mad. In his more enlightened moments the Professor encourages men to ensure that their wives also experience sexual pleasure and he argues that scolding and hitting small children is counter-productive. But these moments of sanity are few and far between.

Here is a random selection of the wisdom of Professor Wells:

  • Novel reading is stimulating and should be avoided inasmuch as it excites the imagination and fills the mind with voluptuous ideas
  • Fat women have inflamed passions, but the sexual act has not so electrifying an effect on them as it has upon those who are more naturally constituted
  • An effeminate man should marry a masculine woman; but it would not be advisable for this contrast to be carried to an extreme, by a very effeminate man marrying a large, stately, fleshy and masculine woman.
  • Has the reader ever thought how it is that sailors' wives so long retain their youthful charms of good looks? It is because they have long periods of rest during their husband's absence, which enables them to recruit their sexual energies.
  • Men and women of strong sexual natures have generally powerful and deep voices. It is a sign of impaired or disturbed sexual vigour when the voice becomes husky and rough, or shrill and piping.
  • Men who have thick, full necks and penetrating eyes are generally strong in their sexual nature.
  • Extra large men are not so well sexed, which accounts for the fact that giants have very little sexual power.
  • When we look around us we find that strong, robust men, who are full of life and vigour, usually become parents of sons rather than daughters, especially at the commencement of their married life; and as their life advances and vigour decreases there will generally be found a preponderance of daughters.
  • It is the bounden duty of every man to marry before he is thirty years of age; especially considering that there are so many women in the land whose hearts yearn for sympathy, and who need the protection and advice of the masculine gender.
Nine sweeping statements that seem utterly absurd to the modern reader. But I will finish with one very sane and forward-thinking statement from Professor Wells:
  • Husbands too frequently consider that the marriage ceremony gives them a free license to indulge as frequently as they like in sexual enjoyment. Many a married man has virtually committed rape upon his wife, and although the crime may be unrecogised as such by the law, it is none the less a fact.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if many Victorian readers found the concept of marital rape one of the more fanciful ideas, compared to the sound, commonsense statements that arose from the "science" of phrenology. But I couldn't back-up my opinion with facts.

Like Professor Wells, I'm not an expert.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Arundel Tomb

Yesterday I drove to Chichester to meet someone who had some books to sell. I only had half an hour to spare, but I managed to squeeze in a visit to the cathedral:

The cathedral is beautiful by any standards, but what makes it particularly stunning is its successful blending of the ancient and modern, thanks to the extraordinary vision of George Bell and Walter Hussey.

I love the way that medieval tombs sit alongside bold, Cubist-inspired tapestries. I know that these contemporary works of art ruffled a few feathers when they were installed, but nearly 50 years on, they seem perfectly at home. Bishop Bell's vision has ensured that the Cathedral is a living church rather than a museum piece.

When I returned to work, I tried to convey the excitement of Chichester Cathedral. "They've got a Marc Chagall window!"

"Who's Marc Chagall?" came the reply.

I had forgotten myself. Most of the time, my work persona is an amiable, two-dimensional caricature - one that allows people to fill in the blanks themselves. When people ask me what I'm doing at the weekend, I lie. It's much easier to say, with a world-weary sigh, that you're taking the 'kids' to the Sea Life Centre ("Isn't it expensive these days!") rather than talking about the new Paul Nash exhibition that you want to see. Paul Who?

Sometimes I wish I'd stayed in London.

However, it's not all bleak. I now have some bright young things working for me who want to talk about more than last night's match. I'm sure that they would appreciate this:

The medieval Arundel Tomb is remarkable. I have written about it before here, three years ago and quoted the full Philip Larkin poem, with its beautiful last line, "What will survive of us is love".

Chichester is nice. It has plenty of historic buildings and even the local Marks and Spencer appears to have had some sort of preservation order imposed on it. I haven't seen this font for years:

But I wouldn't want to live there. Perhaps that's because I associate the place with Waterstone's.

When Ottakar's was bought by HMV, my shop became part of a new Waterstone's area and I was required to attend monthly regional meetings at the Chichester branch. They were not happy occasions. I had left Waterstone's in 1994, vowing that I'd never work for them again. Suddenly, without my consent, I was back and this Waterstone's was far worse than the company I'd left 12 years earlier.

As Waterstone's managers had gradually had their autonomy eroded by a succession of retailers, the meetings had a very limited scope. We discussed burning issues like "How can we successfully promote the new loyalty card?" or "What's the best way to make people buy Waterstone's gift cards instead of Book Tokens?"

After enduring several hours of trivia, I used to sneek across the road to Chichester Cathedral and look at the Arunel Tomb. Every time I looked at the 700-year-old stone carvings, I felt grounded. The ephemeral nonsense of loyalty cards and campaign changeover would pass. The things that really mattered would remain.

Here is Philip Larkin himself, reading An Arundel Tomb...

Monday, April 12, 2010

What Men Want

If you've ever wondered what men really want, I have the answer - courtesy of a late-1950s thriller omnibus:

Never mind those literary novels written by bespectacled milksops. We want our books to be vigorous and virile, with lots of weapons, heaving bosoms and double-crossing foreigners.

I feel quite ashamed that I had never heard of this "oustanding publishing triumph" until now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Giving an xx

"They've gone from playing in a sandpit together as kids to producing one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year. Alex Petridis meets the xx, the band quietly taking over the world" - The Guardian Weekend magazine

If I had a pound for every time a broadsheet hailed a band as the next big thing, I'd be able to afford a weekend for two at a Best Western hotel in a provincial city. Off season.

There is something particularly laughable about a thirtysomething broadsheet journalist trying to tap into the zeitgeist. I'd hate to be a rock critic. Every year you're a little bit older, but the bands, like policemen, seem to get younger and younger. How do you maintain your street cred?

I remember thinking that anyone over 25 was the enemy. When I was at university, there was a rumour going around that a friend was actually 27. We were horrified and felt a raw, visceral disgust, as if someone had asked us to sleep with a pensioner.

The only person over 25 who had credibilty was John Peel.

As for the xx, I was about to write a diatribe about boy bands and the way they try to look so mean and moody in photos, because they're so ridiculously serious about their music. It's only pop, not Mahler.

However, I was wrong on two counts. First, one of them is a girl. Second, the music is rather good. I can't say I'll be playing it in the car, but if I was 19, I'd have loved its miserablist soundscape and pretentious lyrics (or at least pretended to).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Gary Seven

In 1967, the NBC television network had a new project on the drawing board. The series would feature a mysterious agent from another planet called "Gary Seven", who operated from a secret base in New York, assisted by a cat who occasionally turned into a woman.

NBC decided that the best way of introducing this futuristic James Bond would be to include him in an episode of Star Trek.

Gary Seven, played by Robert Lansing, made his debut in a story called Assignment Earth in March 1968. The episode was very well received and Lansing stole the show.

Here is a title sequence from the series. Can you spot the obvious mistake?

The answer is that the series was never made.

This highly accomplished pastiche, made from clips of Star Trek and a quintessentially 1960s soundtrack, is so well done that it's hard not to believe that you're looking at the genuine article.

Series or not, Gary Seven has now replaced David Hunter as my role model.

Sorry David.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

This Week

The following images are of a random selection of things that have appeared in deliveries like the one above, during the last few days. None of them are worth a penny, but to me they are priceless:

Until yesterday, I was blissfuly unaware of the existence of "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E", Look! It's Stephanie Powers and Noel "Windmills of Your Mind" Harrison. The fashions are very "Girls who are boys, Who like boys to be girls, Who do boys like they're girls..." I'm not sure about the hat.

My address book desperately needs a Knight of the Realm in it, but sadly Sir Hugh is no longer with us. A quick search on Google reveals that his neighbour's house recently sold for £6,000,000.

This mysterious photograph has no name or date, but if I had to guess, I would say that it's London in the 1920s-30s. The way the photographer has almost completely cut out one of the subjects reminds me of my mother, who once managed to take an entire film of her left eye.

Spot the ball, from the good old days, when men's trousers came right up to the diaphragm.

"Josephine and Cherry were the first out of the water", from "It Turned Out Fine", by M. E. Host. Not one of the most compelling book titles I've come across. I'd gladly read a book called "The Approaching Tempest" or "The Angry Sea", but "It Turned Out Fine" conveys all the drama and excitement of a weekend in Torbay.

However, the slightly suggestive illustration by Leslie H Shepherd suggests that beyond the terribly dull title, there might be more to this novel.

This enigmatic, Classical nude that looks rather out of place in this setting. As usual, there was no information about the photo and there wasn't even a tenuous link between the book and the image.

And on the subject of Classical nudes:

What was it with the 1960s? I blame it all on the Skiffle bands.

In my early teens, I went to stay in a cottage in Somerset that was full of books like these. I sneaked a few into my room and almost trembled with anticipation at the forbidden fruits that lay ahead.

Needless to say, the books were as disappointing as X-Ray Specs.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Crossing the Line

I've often thought how strange blogging is. We have interesting, meaningful exchanges with complete strangers on the internet, but there is never any question of meeting in real life.

Last week, I crossed the line from cyberspace into real life and met fellow blogger Oliver at The Lewes Arms. The result was a rather alcoholic but very enjoyable evening and I was grateful to The Poet Laura-eate for putting us in touch with each other.

Several people have observed that when they met fellow bloggers, it was comforting to discover how similar the real person was to their blog. On the strength of last week's meeting I'd certainly agree, although the real Oliver was even more interesting and entertaining than his blog.

I should probably have held back a bit on the beer. I've spent the last month on a strict low-carb, no alcohol diet and as a result, a small chocolate liquer will now have me singing "Danny Boy". I think I may have bounced off a few walls on the way home, but it was a good night out.

If you ever have the chance to meet a fellow blogger, I'd recommend it.

Friday, April 02, 2010


Several months ago I found a fascinating book, hidden in a box full of mildewy titles about algebra and geometry. Published in Stuttgart in 1938, Deutschlands Autobahnen can best be described as a Nazi "coffee-table" book about Hitler's road-building programme and, in addition to over 200 pages of text, it has many stunning photographs and full-colour maps.

A quick internet search revealed only one other copy on sale, for over £100. I decided that £89 would be a fair price and wrote a long description in English and German (courtesy of Google translate, I hasten to add).

I was confident that the book would sell within days.

After two weeks with no offers or enquiries, I decided to check if my Google-translated German had unwittingly come out as something like "All pages are made of jelly" because it didn't make sense that such a rare title hadn't sold. I checked, using different combinations of title, author and date.

The book had never gone on sale.

As it wasn't unusual for my software designers to mess things up, I decided that it would be quicker to list the book again, with a shorter, umlaut-free description. Once again, the book failed to appear on sale, even though titles that I'd logged before and after had uploaded without any problem.

Eventually, I discovered that many internet bookselling platforms like AbeBooks won't allow people to list titles about Hitler if they were written and published in Nazi Germany. Apparently, my book about motorways of the Third Reich had been automatically deleted.

This sort of censorship is both heavy-handed and inappropriate. I do not need the likes of eBay to protect me from the apparently seductive forces of Naziism or second guess why I am purchasing a particular title. I am a grown-up.

I thought that banning books was more Hitler's style.

In the meantime, here are some remarkable photographs from another book that I'm not allowed to sell: a 1936 hagiography called, simply, Adolf Hitler. If you're unable to look at the following images without succumbing to the urge to join an Aryan supremacist movement, please click here:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will shortly begin bombing Poland."

Members of the Master Race greeting their Fuhrer

This young man is obviously blissfully unaware of the Nazi eugenics policy

Apparently, the Nazi party was never that popular with the German people

"Herr Hitler, instead of just waving at people, have you ever thought of trying a special salute like this?"

Adolf Hitler is an important historical document and if you want to know how a nation came to fall under the spell of a mass psychosis, it is important to read contemporary source material like this. Of course there will be people out there who are attracted to material of this kind for the wrong reasons, but that doesn't justify banning books.

There are occasions when censorship can be a necessary evil, to safeguard the civil liberties of the vulnerable. But do we really need to be protected from images like these? I don't think so.