Friday, August 27, 2010


I'm off to visit an old enemy. I'll be back in a week.

In the meantime, here is a small selection of bookmarks that have turned up during the last few days:

"Taken May 1922. With all best wishes, your affectionate cousin, John."

I was born too late to experience the Russ Conway phenomenon, but after watching this clip on YouTube, I'm now a fan. It's catchy (albeit in a Guantanamo Bay "Let's break their will to live" sort of way):

And on the back of the photo, you can see what Conway's fans liked to drink while they were tapping their feet to the syncopated rhythms of Side Saddle:

The postcard below has penetrated a new, deeper stratum of tedium. It's even duller than the ones in the book Boring Postcards:

And finally, my favourite of the lot. The back reads: "I don't think you've seen this before but it's moi last January with my evening's entertainment!"

He's a cheeky chappie (and if you're a Lost fan - doesn't he look like Charlie?).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Victorian Colour from 1881

I've just found a beautiful children's book with colour illustrations called "At Home", published in 1881. The flyleaf bears this inscription:

I intended to scan no more than half a dozen illustrations, as it's quite time consuming. However, it was impossible to choose. I particularly like these plates as they have no pretensions towards artistic greatness and aren't trying to say anything. They were created for a contemporary audience of young readers and their idealised version of childhood is typical of the period.

Note the Arts and Crafts wallpaper in the third and twelfth plates:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Derek - the Paracetamol Years

If you're new to this blog, then please click here, followed by here, here, or even here, to find out who Derek is and why he has touched the hearts of hundreds, possibly thousands of people.

Today's extracts are from the late 1980s, when Derek's hypochondria has reached the point where he is contemplating early retirement on grounds of ill health. On every other page, Derek records that he has a cold or headache. Unfortunately, Brenda and the children don't seem to have fared much better, with of constant succession of minor ailements.

It is hardly suprising that Derek and Brenda suffered from so many largely psychosomatic illnesss. Aside from the stresses of raising a mentally handicapped child, they spent many years living with Brenda's mother, who comes across as a rather poisonous individual. Derek was clearly a frustrated man who dreamed of being a writer, but was very candid about his own mediocrity. Derek's passions were dampened down by his sense of duty, but resurfaced as minor ailments.

We begin with Derek suffering from existential angst:

Life is very ordinary at the moment. We sleep; we rise up; we work; we return again; we sit and fall asleep in front of the television; and the evenings draw in earlier by the night; and we retire to bed again.

Today I ate my tea - salad surrounding chicken nibbles, followed by banana and chocolate custard. As I did so, I watched an early Tarzan film on television: "Tarzan Triumps," a weird sort of film made to inspire patriotism in young Americans during the war years. Weismuller had great lines: "Where Boy? Boy gone? Now Tarzan make war!"

If I had my way, I would always take The Times or the Daily Telegraph. But Brenda finds them rather too heavy for her taste, hence most times I get the Daily Mail. This, of course, has some excellent articles in it, particularly those by Paul Johnson and Lynda Lee-Potter. However, some of its items are rather too frenetic, others are untrustworthy, and its blue politics too overt for my taste.

While preparing Richard's bath this morning, I was pondering on the division of the earth in the days of Shem and Peleg. It seemed to me that if one were to prepare a jigsaw of those parts of the earth that fitted together and stuck them so, the space must be left where the city of Enoch used to be. I ran downstairs to put this theory to Brenda. She assessed its faults as a workable model in about three minutes. She pointed out that some parts of the earth had glided over others; others had been thrust up as mountain chains; yet others were uplifted seabed. Ergo, fitting the parts would not be possible, only in a limited way because of techtonic plate movement. So, back to my ponderings I go. Facts are always getting in the way!

Well, the only fool about today was me. I was full of hyperenergy, kept making stupid remarks and in many respects must have appeared most childish to the members of the staff at the office. Still, I have enjoyed myself; and Shirley Jones remarked in the moment of my attempted repentance that they much preferred me foolish, since it livened up the place a bit. But still, what sort of Priesthood holder is it that spends time making a fool of himself when the solemnities of eternity ought to be resting on his mind?

Amanda Wilmington gave an excellent talk. Her clarity of voice is a delight to listen to; and her material is quite novel in a young lady of her age. She is due to have an operation on her jaw soon since it is rather too large for her face. Once that is done, she will be an attractive young lady with much to give.

I walked down to Nanna's flat to deliver some colostomy bags to her. I had picked these up earlier from the hospital, where I had asked for some "sunshine" bags, Nanna's pet term for them. They boggled somewhat, so I explained myself; and when I left, bags in hand, they were of the opinion that sunshine bags was a more descriptive term, particularly since the bags are bright yellow in colour! When I got home again, the Spirit came upon me most powerfully.

I took my route up the High Street, and at its end there was a group of lads and girls in black leather jackets and leggings, several of them drunk, singing and carousing through the crowds and shouting vile abuse at car drivers; for the group took no care of the pedestrian crossing lights. I prayed to the Lord that the day might rapidly come when such scenes would pass away from the earth, and it would be people with men and women of sobriety and peace.

I thought I would be free of needing to follow them once we reached the Centre, but they took their own way down the same road. When I got inside my gate and turned to latch it, one of them turned and bawled "What are you looking at, you f...... s......?" Not the sort of remark to stay and answer. And that is the great question: why do the sons of Satan always have a strong build? One never suffers abuse nor evil from little men whom one could flatten. Curious...

Recently my family has made me increasingly aware of the irritation caused by my tapping away at the typewriter keys when I am at home. Perhaps it is time for me to return to writing out my entries? That would be much harder, and somewhat of an intellectual grindstone since my thoughts seem to flow more freely through a keyboard...

A year or so later, Derek seems to have bowed to popular demand and gave up typing his diaries. Sadly, the last few journals - handwritten in exercise books - were thrown away by someone in the warehouse where I work, but I do remember reading about a trip to the Holy Land, which must have been a major event in Derek's life (particularly as he never seemed to travel abroad).

In spite of his relatively good health, Derek was able to retire early on grounds of ill health, thanks to a sympathetic doctor. A diary from 1989 shows that Derek appears to have enjoyed life after work, joining a creative writing course at the local adult education college.

After that, Derek's life is a mystery. I would love to know how the story ended.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Cambridge Education

I have just finished a fairly disastrous trip to Cambridge, during which I was berated from all sides for not including any interactive, child-friendly, soft play activities on the itinerary. My argument - "But this is Cambridge!" failed to impress anyone.

I don't know what all the fuss was about. My sons seemed quite happy converting the railings of King's College into an army assault course, although my attempts to engage their attention by comparing every ancient buiding to Harry Potter were a dismal failure. They knew exactly what I was up to.

I could have happily spent a whole day exploring the colleges (and next time I'll leave the boys at home and do just that). I thought that Trinity College was particularly beautiful:

But what particularly impressed me was the beauty of the people. This must be the place where all those embracing 'A' level girls with lustrous hair went. For a moment, I stood and contemplated the juxtaposition of the stunning medieval architecture and beautiful women whizzing past on bicycles. Could anywhere this perfect really exist?

If I hadn't been so incompetent at finding the correct "Park and Ride" bus stop, I would have probably left with a misty-eyed impression of Cambridge, but we boarded the wrong bus and what should have been a five-minute journey became an hour-long odyssey around the ring roads and back streets of the city. I saw grafitti-ridden underpasses, bland industrial estates and cheap, badly designed modern housing. It was a revelation.

At some point everyone except us got off the bus and as we travelled further away from the city, I wondered where we were going to end up. Then I noticed a familiar-looking row of pebble-dashed houses with satellite dishes, followed by the appallingly-designed Crown Court. We were back.

I have seen more of Cambridge than I ever thought I would. The centre is breathtakingly beautiful, but like so many other cities, it is surrounded by a ring of 20th century ugliness. In a recent radio programme, someone remarked that one of the best things about the recession was that a lot of building projects have had to be scrapped.

It's a shame to think like that. I don't want to live in a chocolate box "Heritage Britain", but the drab ulilitarianism of the majority of postwar buildings makes it hard not to feel that way. Will the Barbican still be standing in 600 years time?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How old?

This morning I found this author photo, on a dustjacket from 1939:

28? In today's youth-obsessed society, where programmes like Ten Years Younger are more popular than the news, this look seems a little eccentric, but it appears that in 1939, 30 was the new 40.

I don't know if the book's any good, but the cover is superb:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Percival Skedgell

Many thanks to Sam Jordison for mentioning this blog in his books feature for The Guardian - "The Precious Unprinted Contents of Books". Thanks to Sam, the cult of Derek has increased tenfold and I predict that by the middle of the century, he'll have more followers than the Church of the SubGenius.

In the Guardian blog article, Sam writes: "Marginalia and forgotten mementoes are often squirreled away inside conventional books. What will become of such treasures in the age of the ebook?"

In spite of my day job, I'm not completely against ebooks. I can see that they make sense if you're a student who needs several dozen weighty textbooks, or a Dan Brown fan who consumes a couple of paperback thrillers a week during the commute to work. Not all books are sacred. Disposable books are well-suited to an ephemeral medium.

However, the books that you care about - the ones you hope to read again and pass on to your loved ones (who will then give them to me), should be printed on paper. Bookworms, mildew and acid notwithstanding, books last - particularly the older ones. Kindles are vulnerable. They depend on an infrastructure that provides electricity and transmits and decodes digital information. Can we automatically assume that this infrastructure will continue to exist? Will our civilisation become the first one in human history to endure?

Just to be on the safe side, let's keep printing books on paper.

My work involves sifting though thousands of charity shop rejects in search of titles that are worth selling. In the last year I've found a 1590 Bible, a signed first edition of Siegfried Sassoon's "War Poems" and copy of "What Katy Did Next" signed, somewhat improbably, by Enid Blyton. It's amazing what people throw away.

However, even more than the books, I love the ephemera that I find in them: photographs, pressed flowers, letters, a 1930s London Underground ticket, a list of rules for borrowing library books aimed at the "labouring classes", a Wartime guide to growing your own vegetables, or an enigmatic message scrawled on a book's endpaper that says "Nothing you say will set the house ablaze".

Each item, however trivial, is a tantalising piece of evidence from a forgotten life. I'm fully aware of the irony of praising the virtues of the printed page on a blog, but the two mediums can be complementary and I love the fact that the internet allows me share things that would otherwise have been lost.

Like this:

This is a novel from the 1970s, written by a man with the wonderful name of Percival Skedgell. You won't have heard of it because there is only one copy in existence. If the ebook is at one end of the spectrum, this unique, handwritten novel is about as far as you can go in the other direction.

I've no idea how good the novel is, as the handwriting is so small that I feel like Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape. However, it looks like a fantasy novel - not my favourite genre, but I am intrigued.

The book is a work of art, painstakingly written and bound (let's ignore the odd Tip-ex mark), with hundreds of pages of text. Amazingly, it was almost thrown away.

And who is, or was, Percival Skedgell? I have found one reference to him on the Coventry University alumni website:

"The second oldest in my class was Percival Skedgell at 25, from Dartmoor. He moved to Portsmouth to illustrate for the Navy."

Not much of an obituary, if he is actually dead. The only other reference that I've found to a Percival Skedgell is an obituary from 2008. Can there really be more than one Percival Skedgell?

I can't sell the book, so I'm hanging on to it in the hope that relative of Percival's will find this blog during a Google name search, If you're a Skedgling, the book is yours.

P.S: Dec 2011 -There is a happy ending to this story. After its close encounter with oblivion, Percival Skedgell's book has been reunited with a member of his family.

Seen on the way home from work...

When was the last time you saw a car sticker that made you think "Hmm, I'd really like to get to know that person"?

I particularly hate all of the variations of the Baby on Board stickers: "Little Princess on Board", "Cheeky Monkey on Board" etc, although I did like one that said "Babe on Board", particularly when I pulled alongside and saw a rather plain teenage girl with severe acne sitting behind the wheel.

If I had my way, I'd ban 90% of car stickers. No more "I'm the bitch in front of you" or a picture of a Liverpool fan urinating on an Everton football shirt. In my Stalinist state, I would only allow tha proletariat a choice of five car stickers:
  • The National Trust
  • I've Seen the Lions at Longleat
  • Woburn Abbey
  • A choice of BBC local radio stations
  • AA/RAC
I think that's more than enough. Party members would,of course, be allowed to have their own stickers, but these would have to be genuinely witty or beautiful. Imagine being stuck behind a car in a traffic jam and seeing a quote from Middlemarch or Moby Dick?

Now there's a business idea.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Idyllic World of Peter and Jane

On Friday I found an old Ladybird Peter and Jane book. As soon as I opened it, I was taken back to a day when my parents solemnly announced that I was going to learn to read, as if it was an unpleasant medical procedure that had to be endured. I protested, but they wouldn't listen and silently, we got in my dad's clapped-out Ford Prefect and drove to "The Christian Bookshop" in Richmond.

We returned home with a Ladybird book and I began to read for the first time: "This is Peter. This is Jane. This is Peter and Jane. Peter likes Jane. Jane likes Peter..." It wasn't the most exciting narrative, but it did the job.

Even at the age of five, I could see that the late 1950s/early 60s illustrations belonged to another world. Listening to threads of my parents' conversations, it seemed to have once been a real world, but was destroyed when young men decided to grow their hair longer. I couldn't understand why it should be bad to have hair like Jesus, but I accepted that I wasn't being told everything.

If you're not familiar with the idyllic world of Peter and Jane, here is a typical story:

Peter and Jane's mummy is making an apple pie. She does not have any apples.

She asks Peter and Jane to buy some at the greengrocer. Peter has the money and Jane has a basket.

On the way to the shops, Peter says that they should walk into town and spend the money on sweets.

They can take the apples from Mrs Pippin's garden on the way home.

It is a long walk to the shops in town.

Luckily, a friendly stranger offers them a lift.

He lets Peter and Jane sit in the front. They like this.

When the stranger sees a police car, he says that Peter and Jane must get out quickly.

The shops are not far now.

"Look!" says Peter. "Here is the sweet shop."

Peter has aniseed balls. Jane buys some sherbert lemons.

Peter has some money left, so they travel home by bus.

On the way home, they see the friendly stranger helping some other children.

Before going home, Peter and Jane climb into Mrs Pippin's garden. There are lots of juicy red apples.

Peter gives Mrs Pippin's dog an aniseed ball to stop it barking.

Jane's mummy has made a surprise tea, but Peter has eaten too many sweets. He has a tummy ache.

There is a knock at the door. It is Mrs Pippin.

As you can, it's a nice innocent story for young boys and girls who are learning to read. The illustrations are by John Berry, who also illustrated the Ladybird Book of the Recession and a very informative title about scout badges. I hope that these titles will reappear in print at some point in the future.