Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Flying Nun

There are some things that make you wonder if you have woken up in an alternate universe.

This is one of them:

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Last Week's Photos

In the good old days, it didn't matter if a writer had a face like the back end of a bus because, with a few exceptions, they were unseen by their public. George Eliot, once described by Henry James as "magnificently ugly" never had to endure the humiliation of the dustjacket author photo.

I wonder how many writers agonise over their official author photos. Even if you're confident about your looks (or past caring), there is the question of what to wear and what pose to adopt. An open smile is obviously out - you're a writer - but will a half-smile make you look approachable or smug? Perhaps it's better to play it straight, but that can end up looking miserable or self-important.

I remember one young American writer who decided to be photographed standing in front of a brick wall, wearing his best Levi's. I think he wanted to look edgy and urban, but he ended up looking stiff and uncomfortable, with one thumb half-heartedly placed inside his righthand pocket. Perhaps I was being more critical because I knew that his wife had taken the picture in leafy Richmond-upon Thames, but still I don't think it worked as an image.

He should have gone for this look:

This is the quintessential author photo. I love the half-closed left eye and faraway look, as if the writer is busy contemplating the contents of his next novel. The pipe, old school tie and neatly-trimmed beard all add to the air of gravitas. Sadly, for the author at least, his books are now out of print.

But there's another profession who must have had an even harder time striking the right pose:

Before the "happy clappy" movement made joy a virtual sacrament, clergymen were supposed to exude an air of intellectual rigour and unworldliness. This gentleman looks as if he'd be happiest debating the finer points of transubstatiation, or which Bach organ sonata is the greatest.

Where did it all go wrong? I blame William Booth.

On the subject of sacraments, is marriage one of them? The Catholic and Orthodox churches say yes; the Protestants say no. Whatever the answer, is there any excuse for these transgressions:



Not only are the bridegrooms breaking several fashion by-laws, but they actually seem happy.

This is really going against the grain. Over the last year or so, I have published of number of amusing wedding photographs in which the bride is clearly up the duff and the bridegroom is approaching the altar with the stoic resignation of a condemned man.

At least this couple seem more traditional, right down to the miserable faces:

The figures in the background are like a Greek chorus.

Oh dear, there's no turning back. At least, not until the first affair with the girl in the typing pool. But this wedding isn't a completely grim affair and some people seem to be enjoying themselves:

I wonder where the honeymoon was? Would it have been somewhere as exotic as this European location:

If you click on the photo, you should be able to see more. I'd love to travel 50 years back in time and join this coach party, although I'd draw the line at sing-songs.

This photo isn't quite as old, but I still find it bizarre that the fastest passenger aircraft in the world made its debut 41 years ago and has now been retired, whilst the lumbering Jumbo Jets still take seven hours to get to New York:

The problem with Concorde is that there weren't enough people who wanted Phil Collins to play two concerts on each side of the Atlantic on the same day.

1969 was a watershed year for many people: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the first supersonic airliner made its maiden flight and Monty Python made its debut on British television. There was a genuine excitement about every new technological development. People felt that they were on the brink of the Space Age.

Can you imagine crowds of ordinary people turning out to see a new aeroplane these days?

It's strange how the future is now in the past. That's not an entirely bad thing though. I know that postmodernism is a dirty word in some circles, but for every Apollo programme and supersonic airliner, there were dozens of awful, dehumanizing civic building schemes, in which reinforced concrete was ubiquitous.

Before I post these photos, I usually clean them up a little, removing any large distracting smudges and correcting the colour balance (but not too much - I still want them to look old).

However, this image has defeated me:

I suppose that it's beyond repair, but if anyone has any ideas I'd love to know.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Work Suspended and Other Stories

This blog is taking a temporary break, as my laptop is broken.

I have borrowed my son's notebook to post this and the keys are maddeningly small. Also the letter "t" doesn't work properly and I have to hit it with twice as much force as any other key.

Normal service will hopefully be resumed shortly - I have some particularly good photos that were discovered in last week's deliveries. In the meantime, here is a short clip of one of my heroes, the creator of the Doctor Who theme tune, Delia Derbyshire:



If only Robert Moog hadn't ruined it all by inventing the synthesizer.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Colourful Victorians

This blog seems to be obsessed with the Victorian age at the moment, but I assure you that it's not intentional. I've just had a lot of 19th century books and ephemera arrive recently.

Today's pictures are some stunning colour illustrations from a children's book that was published in 1870. The book itself was in appalling condition, but I managed to rescue the plates. If you want to use the images, they've been scanned at a reasonably high resolution:










Friday, November 12, 2010

More Victorian Photographs

Last month I posted some highlights from a remarkable collection of photographs from the 1860s, which had been retrieved from a skip. Today, another mid-Victorian album was rescued by a keen-eyed person at work.

This selection of photos, which appear to have been taken in parts of East Anglia and Lincolnshire, isn't quite in the same league as last month's find. There are too many studio portraits and most have a stiffness and formality that was, on the whole, refreshingly absent in the earlier album. But there are still some striking images.

Take this, for example:

This almost looks like a modern pastiche of Victorian photographs, as the woman's face seems so contemporary.

The same couldn't be said for the next photograph. When a colleague at work saw it, he confidently announced "Here we have empirical proof that people were much uglier in the past."


The next photo reminded another colleague of a certain novel by Dickens:

When she asked me if I'd ever read "David Copperfield" I almost choked, but after quickly regaining my composure, I agreed with my colleague that the man could have been Daniel Peggotty (certainly not Steerforth).

Open any Victorian photograph album and you will see at least one woman wearing black.

My father hated anything that smacked of the 19th century. He had grown up surrounded by Victorians and took great delight in destroying all of the original features of our 1880s house, pebbledashing the redbrick walls and replacing the sash windows with mock Georgian. When I started wearing long black coats and boots, he was apoplectic with rage: "You look as if you're going to a funeral."

My inevitable retort stopped being funny when his health started to decline.

But although he professed to hate black clothes, shortly before he died, my father confessed that he fancied the woman in the Scottish Widows commercials.

This beard seems to fade out rather than stop. How long is it? Today, a beard like this would stop traffic, but of course, in the 1870s it was perfectly normal and some of my favourite people - Brahms, Darwin and Monet - all sported remarkable, soup-retaining expanses of facial hair.

A mother and son photo I presume. I've noticed that quite a few women in the photos from this period chose to be pictured holding a book - presumably the Bible. I like the idea of having a portrait taken surrounded by significant objects, like Holbein's Ambassadors.

These men appear to be holding some of the tools of their trade:

Is that grass in the foreground? Perhaps this portrait was taken outside, with a portable backdrop and strip of carpet to create the illusion of an opulent interior?

I love this picture. There's a compelling intimacy in this close-up portrait that makes me wish I could know the person in it. And she has beautiful eyes.

A rare outdoor shot, with a mysterious figure in the doorway.

If you ever wondered why people of a certain age had antimacassars on their armchairs and sofas, look at this man's slicked-back hair. Grease is the word.

This was a frustrating album. Most of the photos were developed in Wisbech and Boston, but there were also pictures from places as far afield as Llandudno and London. With no images of notable buildings, it is impossible to determine where these people lived . As far as dates are concerned, only two images are marked: 1867 and 1874.

Last month's Cockerham album turned out to be an important social document. Today's collection is less engaging, but there are still plenty of memorable images and amongst these unfamilar faces, there might be an ancestor of somebody we know today.

Can you see any familiar faces?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beware! Trains

Two weeks ago, on the way back from visiting the second oldest building in England (the oldest is this, if you're interested), I nearly crashed the car when I saw a sign that read "Railway Museum". I don't have any great interest in trains, but I am endlessly fascinated by railway enthusiasts. I am a trainspotter spotter.

Having said that, I think that trainspotters and railway enthusiasts are quite different creatures. Trainspotting, at its purest, has been cited as a classic sympton of Asperger's Syndrome - an obsession with collecting data that has no meaning beyond its own terms of reference. The railway enthusiast, on the other hand, is driven by nostalgia: a deep-seated longing to leave the messy, complex and disappointing present for an idyllic, model railway vision of society, where everything connects, runs on time and makes sense.

I can relate to that.

I had never heard of the Mangapps Railway Museum at Burnham-on-Crouch. Given that this was a school half-term holiday with reasonably mild weather, I expected to see a few families ambling around the exhibits, but as I reached the end of a long dirt track, it was clear that the car park was completely empty.

No families. Not even those strange, middle-aged men with moustaches and very expensive SLR cameras that tend to proliferate in these sorts of places.

Why was I the only visitor?

The museum's website says that it is "believed" to have the largest signalling collection on public display in Britain. Even on a quiet Friday afternoon in late October, there must be enough signalling fans out there to provide a steady stream of visitors. Perhaps the museum's fairly remote location, on the Dengie peninsula, was an obstacle.

In addition to a fine collection of signals, the museum had some splendid signs:


There were also some intriguing machines like this one, which helped to ensure that the trains all ran to the timetable:

I can see the attraction of displays like these. They represent a world of fixed values and certainties. Gradients, distances between stations and capacities of branch lines are all constants. In this world, there are no incompetent private contractors or draconian branch line closures, whilst private cars are for the sole use of the very wealthy and the emergency services.

Was the world ever like this poster?

I'm very tempted to ask to see my local Station Master (although in Lewes I wouldn't be entirely surprised if an immaculately-dressed, rather rotund man with mutton chop sideburns and a gleaming pocket watch suddenly emerged from a hidden door).

With no "railfans" to spot, my visit seemed rather pointless. But I perked up when I saw this old London Underground Northern Line carriage:

I love being able to walk around a train carriage that must have carried hundreds of thousands of commuters over several decades of use and relish every detail, from the upholstery of the seats to the advertisements above them.

For me, the real attraction of any museum is the social history. A few years ago I visited the National Railway Museum in York and whilst I could coldly admire the enginering achievements of the various locomotives, the things that really excited me were the Royal Trains through the ages: the opulence of Queen Victoria's carriage, the Art Deco fittings of George VI's and the relative austerity of Elizabeth II's.

This museum was too functional for my tastes and I would have liked to have seen more social history. Parts of the museum felt like a collection of objects thrown together, rather than a curated display with any narrative, and I would imagine that even in the railway community, there aren't that many people interested in signals and signalling devices.

Of course, I could be wrong.

In my ideal railway museum, there would be more of the everyday objects that passengers took for granted until they suddenly disappeared: the Nestle chocolate dispensers, the make-your-own record booths, the platform-ticket machines and the leather window straps of carriages like this one:

Should museums preach to the converted or try and engage the uninterested? The best should be able to do both, presenting displays that are accessible but not dumbed-down.

But I'm not complaining. After having the second oldest building to myself in the morning, I went on to enjoy being the sole occupant of a museum. I felt like an aristocrat, relishing the privilege of a private viewing. Do I want these places to get their act together and attract more visitors?

Probably not.

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Jolly Day Out in London

Today I have another example of something that was almost thrown into the skip at work. It's a project book, compiled by a group of Middlesborough schoolgirls in 1935, describing their day trip to London.

The book has no financial value, but I find it touching and enchanting:


They girls apear to have had a whistlestop tour of London, visiting St Paul's Cathedral, Westminsster Abbey, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, London Zoo and Trafalgar Square:


In spite of this exhausting itinerary, they also found time to visit Convent Garden:

But the highlight of their day appears to have been London Zoo:


After visiting one historic building after another, the zoo must have come as a huge relief to the girls, although one pupil had an unfortunate encounter with an elephant:

"One came up to me called Co-Coal and took a biscuit from me which I was about to eat. I was ever so frightened and I hid be hind my school teacher, Miss Bean because I thought that it was going to eat me, but my teacher said 'Don't worry Dorothy, you wouldn't make a mouthful.'"

I'm accustomed to school trips ending in the middle of the afternoon, but the girls from South Bank must have been made of stronger stuff:

In an age in which there was no television and only the privileged few travelled abroad, this day-trip to London must have very exciting. It is not the thing in itself that is important, but the anticipation, preparation and experience of being part of a group in a different environment.

I had a similar experience on a much smaller scale when I was 10 years old and living in a children's home. One day we received an invitation to visit the Post Office Tower as special guests and it was one of the most memorable days of my life. I will never forget the moment when we climbed into the back of a London taxi and Sister Davey turned to the driver and said "Post Office Tower, please - VIP entrance."

Our normal lives were humdrum and routine. The home was run with a military precision and we knew that each day would be like the one before. For one magical day, life felt like a big adventure. I don't remember much about the Post Office Tower, but the experience of seeing a world beyond our four walls was one I'll never forget.

If this project book was created in 1935, then it's possible that some of these pupils are still alive.

I wonder if any of them still remember a terrified Dorothy Williamson, cowering behind the reassuring figure of Miss Bean.