Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Stephen Fry Mystery

This morning, I took my younger son to a rather strange open air museum of industrial archaeology which, given its mostly odd-looking visitors and large collection of redundant machinery, felt like some sort of post-apocalyptic settlement. I liked it.

However, on the way there, I passed somewhere that was far superior in the post-apocalyptic stakes: Shoreham Cement Works. Closed in 1991, the works consist of two huge abandoned factories that look like something out of Tarkovsky's masterpiece, Stalker.

On the western side of a road that cuts through the works, there is an abandoned office building:

As you can see, there is some writing on the wall under the top row of windows:


Why would somebody go to the effort of breaking into an abandoned factory next to a rural minor road, just so that they could paint an anti-Stephen Fry slogan?

I know that Fry's status as a 'national treasure' isn't universally accepted, but this seems a rather strange form of protest. The only suspect that springs to mind - Simon Gray - died three years ago.

It's a mystery.

Also, haven't they heard of Twitter? Stephen Fry certainly has.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Colourful 1890s

I was going to call this post 'Dr Barnardo's Bubbles', but then I remembered all of those annoying, possessive book titles that seemed to be a craze in the publishing world after 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', so I decided against it.

Yesterday I found a children's annual from the 1890s, edited by Dr Barnardo. Like many annuals of this period, it contains a selection of mawkish, sentimental short stories and rather dull, worthy articles. This copy was given as a present to a boy called Herbert:

It's a brief message, but in true Victorian fashion, Mrs Thwaite Metcalfe manages to squeeze in a quick reference to her son's eventual demise.

I wonder what Herbert thought when he unwrapped his present from Mama on Christmas Day? Perhaps his heart sank when he saw that the package was book-shaped, rather than toy steam engine-shapped. However, he might have changed his mind once he opened the pages, as this is no ordinary annual.

Unlike most books of this period, 'Bubbles' is packed with attractive, full page colour illustrations covering a variety of themes: fairy tales, Bible stories, scenes from the Empire and portraits of the deprivation and poverty that Barnardo fought to alleviate. In the 1890s, it must have seemed miraculous.

It has been observed that if you want to really want to get the flavour of a particular period, you should eschew great art in favour of the second rate, the ephemeral and the commercial. I'm not completely convinced by this argument, but the following illustrations probably tell us a lot more about late-Victorian society than any Van Gogh painting:

And finally, here is the back cover:

I'm sure that young Herbert loved these bright, colourful illustrations. But I bet he never read the short stories.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Life is Better When You Know More"

This post contains a random selection of things that have turned up at work during the last week.

I suspect that most of them have come from house clearances. Some are book-related, but many aren't and I often wonder how they ever make it as far as my desk. However, I'm glad that they do.

First, a 1960s maths textbook. Although I'm a child of the 70s, I vaguely remember covers like this one. I took them for granted at the time, but today I'm struck by how well designed they are:

Much better than this drab, utilitarian cover from a decade earlier:

I wonder if Brian was aware that he was the object of passionate desires?

Staying in the 1950s, I found a 1951 children's annual and when I opened it, this was the first thing I saw:

Okay, I thought, values have changed and I mustn't jump to conclusions. I'll try another page:

At this point I gave up.

In another 1950s book, I found a leaflet advertising the Chambers Encyclopaedia:

I don't think any of us would take issue with that. But in a list of reasons why learning is good, I wonder how many people would come up with the fifth point:

"So, why do you want to enrol on this degree course Mr Pettigrew?"

"Because I wish to increase my television enjoyment."

The leaflet was used as a bookmark, as was this envelope addressed to my favourite actor, Paul Scofield:

Sadly the letter was missing.

I'm sure that Paul Scofield would have enjoyed this shocking photo:

Victorians caught on camera smiling and playing cards. Outrageous!

Next, five portraits of someone on the journey from childhood to adulthood (alternate title: from hairdo to hairdon't):

And they say the 70s was the decade that style forgot! However, mullets aside, I found these photos fascinating. Most of us have albums that depict our own tortuous paths to adulthood, but the evidence is usually too gradual and cluttered with extraneous detail to convey the magitude of this great transformation.

These photos starkly convey the huge, sometimes terrifying changes that we undergo. I only wish that these pictures covered ten years instead of five.

However, by coincidence I discovered this fascinating sequence of portraits of a girl, taken between 1970 and 1982. I'd just watched a 1970s children's programme on DVD and Googled the names of the cast to see what had happened to them. The younger actors seemed to vanish into obscurity, but one of them - Shelley Crowhurst - popped up on the website of photographer Howard Grey.

Finally, while I can accept that photos, diaries and leaflets are book-related, what about this:

As someone in the warehouse said "80 bob? That's £4! A lot of money in those days."

Why did it end up on my desk? Because, I later found out, someone in the warehouse thought that I was the sort of person who'd probably have a projector. They were right!

It took a while to find my dad's old cine projector amongst the collection of things in the loft that I never use, but can't bring myself to throw away. However, after a long search, this afternoon I watched 'Flat Mates'. I appreciated its subversive narrative structure - the women are naked at the beginning but become increasingly clothed as the film progresses - but felt that it was let down by the cinematography and direction.

Overall, it has been a strange week, but rarely dull.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Last Friday my mother left the home she has lived in since 1963 (she knows where she was when Kennedy died) and moved to a sheltered accommodation flat in Lewes. I had no idea how she was going to react to the change and worried that beyond her facade of stoic resignation, my mother might feel utterly miserable, but to my relief she seems blissfully happy in her new home. It's as if she has been released from a terrible burden.

The process of moving was quite frenetic. I'd been given ten days' notice and, in addition to working full time, I had to find a removal company, decorate the flat, get a carpet laid, install an electric cooker and assemble several kits of flatpack furniture.

Finding a removal company was particularly difficult: three answerphones (one of which had a 'comedy' message) and a wrong number. The final call also seemed liked a wrong number, as the phone was answered by an aristocratic gentleman called Peter,who sounded as if he'd taken too many drugs in the 60s.

The phone call began awkwardly, as Peter seemed reluctant to commit himself to anything, including the nature of his business. Perahps it was a wrong number, but I was desperate. Could Peter move my mother's possessions to Lewes? After many awkward silences and strange noises in the background, Peter said that he probably would be free on July 8th, but needed to check a few details. Could he phone me back in the evening?

A day passed and I hadn't heard a thing from Peter. I phoned him:

"Ah yes,'m glad you phoned me because I don't appear to have your number. Anyway, July 11th should be fine in Storrington. What? July 8th in Teddington? Oh...well I'll have to check my diary...hmm...hmm...yes, that should be fine too."

My heart sank.

To move couldn't have been simpler: 30 boxes, three chairs and one fridge, but when Peter - a portly, ruddy-faced man in his late 50s - arrived an hour late (only a minute before my mother ceased to be the legal owner of her house), he seemed overwhelmed by the task ahead of him.

"You said there were 20 boxes," he complained. I patiently pointed out that they were very small boxes and would have filled 20 normal ones, but he was determined to feel hard done by, pointedly refering to the refrigerator as the "fridge-freezer", as if we'd deceived him.

My mother turned to me and in a whisper that you could hear 50 yards away, said "He's a drinker."

Suddenly a van door opened and a young man walked up the garden path. "This is my er...son," explained Peter. The young man said nothing, but slowly started to rearrange the boxes as if he was playing Tetris. This was going to take all day.

I went up to my bedroom for the last time. To my surprise, my life there flashed before my eyes in a slightly crass, cinematic manner. All that was missing was a soundtrack - maybe the oboe and harp version of the Crossroads theme tune that they used to play during particularly sad moments.

I thought of the time I first discovered Radio Four, when I was eight, and listened in the dark to Mrs Rochester's terrifying wails. I also remembered the patterned wallpaper that seemed to come alive and dance in the semi-dark; recording songs from the Top 20 on Sunday evenings; practising scales on my new piano, recovering from my first hangover; listening to late night phone-ins on LBC; being cold; the sound of trains trundling past; reading Enid Blyton by torchlight; and, when I was two, being carried around the house by Dad to show me that there were no strangers hiding.

I closed the door and said goodbye.

I went downstairs and told Peter that we were going to leave. We would wait for them in Lewes. All Peter had to do was leave the door on the latch and shut it behind him when he left. What could possibly go wrong?

Mum and I got in the car and as I turned the key in the ignition, I realised that this was it. We could never go back. I had expected this to be an emotional moment for my mother, but she was too preoccupied with an anecdote about Auntie Betty to even notice. I interupted Mum and said that we should say goodbye to the house. She looked back briefly and said "The funny thing is, I don't feel anything. I just want to get to the new place."

When I had arrived, all that Mum was concerned about was being able to make a cup of tea for the removal men. It took quite a lot of persuading before she agreed to let me pack the kettle and tea bags. Later, as we joined the M25, she said "Well, I'm glad I didn't make him a cup of tea now. He's absolutely useless. I wouldn't be surprised if he locks himself out of the house."

After 40 miles, the hazy outline of the South Downs appeared in the distance. It had been raining heavily for most of the journey and I worried about my mother's chairs getting wet. But as we drew closer to Lewes, the clouds broke and the sun appeared. "This is a good sign," my mother said.

As we entered the hall of the flats, I felt like a nervous parent taking their child to university or boarding school. How would my mother get on? Would she make friends? Would she wish that she'd stayed in Teddington? These questions had haunted me for the last few months.

Walking towards the lift, we heard a loud voice behind us: "Now, who's this trying to sneak past me without saying hello?" It was the house manager. We barely knew her, but she threw her arms around my mother as if she was a long-lost relative. It was a good start, but I was still anxious to see my mother's reaction to the flat.

I opened the door and let my mother go in first: 

"Ooh, what a lovely carpet...cor, you've been busy...oh I like this...and you can see the hills...and the curtains aren't too bad...I might keep them...this is lovely, really lovely."

As we stood by the window, looking at the sheep grazing on the Downs, my phone rang:  

"Hello, this is, we're still in Teddington. The thing is, I did as you suggested and took the door off the latch and shut it behind me, but then I remembered that I'd left my briefcase in the kitchen and I really need it.What should I do?"

Several responses sprang to mind.

Peter and son eventually arrived three hours late. I decided to help them rather than waste another two hours and by 6.00, it was all over. At the end Peter was charm itself, wishing my mother a happy time in Lewes, recommending local places for a good lunch. We said goodbye and I comforted myself with the knowledge that I would never require Peter's services again.

One week on, I have been amazed by the ease with which my mother has adapted to her new circumstances. She seems genuinely happy in a way that I never dared to imagine was possible and I hope that without the burden of trying to manage a cold, damp house in a street with no shops, my mother still has at least another decade ahead of her.

The last few weeks have been exhausting, but they have also been a welcome distraction from the main thing that is going on in my life at the moment. Three weeks ago, my oldest son was diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder (it's complicated, so I'll avoid labels for the moment).

On the one hand, this news is heartbreaking, but on the other it comes as a relief after five very difficult years that culminated in us having to take our son out of school. We now know why he has found ordinary life so difficult and, more importantly, we will now be able to get him the help he needs.

It's a great pity that some of the psychologists at CAMHS didn't recognise my son's condition earlier, as he could have been spared a lot of pain and distress. Instead, we were accused of trying to 'medicalise' our son and the spotlight was turned on our parenting skills. If we had seen a psychiatrist (as opposed to a psychologist) at the beginning, our lives might have followed a very different course.

I have avoided writing about this subject for a long time because I'm aware that the appeal of this blog, for many, is the things I come across in my job: the strange book covers, old photographs and Derek's diaries. But since my son's diagnosis, I have found it increasingly difficult to write the usual, mildly amusing blog posts whilst my life is undergoing what feels like a huge, techtonic shift.

I apologise for the self-indulgent nature of this post, but it has been cathartic. I will return to the Victorian photos, politically incorrect book covers and strange ephemera soon, but for the moment, this is what I needed to write.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


Most of us have items of clothing that we only wear indoors. I have an Andrew Marr t-shirt which always cheers me up, but I wouldn't wear it in public. I'm always suspicious of people who sport attention-seeking 'comedy' t-shirts.

I also have old Waterstone's t-shirts that I use for doing the decorating. One of them is a very unflattering bright red XL top that says "Can I help you find the perfect present?". We had to wear them one Christmas - the idea was that they would make the staff easy to identify and seem more approachable.

I wasn't convinced. When I go into shops, I identify staff as the people standing behind the till or the ones who aren't wearing coats.

And since when did retail companies have the right to regard their staff as advertising space?

The t-shirts were very annoying. When I popped out to buy sandwiches at M&S, I'd forget I had the t-shirt on and wonder why strangers kept accosting me with questions about books.

Yesterday, I had to paint a flat and found an old t-shirt that said "Ask me about the Waterstone's card". After putting on the first coat of emulsion, I drove home and popped into the corner shop to buy some wine. Raj, the owner, looked at my chest and said "Just back from work then?"

Outside the shop, a neighbour looked me up and down and said "You're early today". I suddenly realised that, as far as my neighbours were concerned, I still work at Waterstone's. Perhaps I should talk to people more.

I had been decorating the flat for my mother. On Friday, she will leave the Teddington house that she has lived in for 48 years and move into a block of sheltered accommodation flats for the elderly, less than a mile from where I live. It will be a huge wrench, I know, but at 81 my mother is finding living alone in a three-bedroom house increasingly hard.

I've been trying to persuade her to sell the house for years. Aside from the fact that it has no central heating and needs a huge amount of work done, my mother's house is also too far from the shops or local doctor, so every outing requires a bus journey. Until recently this wasn't a problem, but a near-brush with death last October made my mother realise how vulnerable she is.

On Sunday I went to say goodbye to the house that I called home for more than half of my life.

It is part of a long road of Victorian, semi-detached redbrick houses, in a sleepy, dull London suburb that is now incredibly popular with house buyers. Teddington may not be very exciting, but the combination of the River Thames, a wealth of parks and some good transport links to central London have made it desirable for those people who find other parts of the metropolis a little too 'urban'.

In spite of the popularity of Teddington, I thought that my mother would struggle to sell the house, as in 1981 my parents decided to rip out the period sash windows and pebbledash the walls (I think I once pompously accused them of "architectural vandalism"). To my surprise, she found a buyer within 10 days. If ever anyone needed proof that selling houses was all about location, here was a prime example.

My mother has left her electric fire for the new owners, as she won't need it in her flat. I had to bite my tongue. I know that the new owners will completely gut the house, extend it and add period touches that were probably never there in the first place. They certainly won't want a naff electric fire.

Somehow I don't think they'll want this carpet either:

My parents bought it in 1963. The carpet is still in good condition after nearly half a century. Apparently the firm that made it went into receivership, as their products were too well made and retailers didn't want to sell carpets that never wore out. The top left-hand corner used to be covered by a rug.

During my final visit I decided to take photos of mundane objects, like the carpet, that hadn't changed since I was a child. The items included a barometer that never worked, some candlelabra light fittings, two 1970s lampshades and this clock, which chimes every quarter of an hour:

When I was sent away to a sanitorium as a child, I was only allowed to see my parents once a month, so telephone calls were very important. I remember the almost unbearable feeling of homesickness that swept over me when I heard this clock chime in the background.

(Later, I became less fond of the clock. When I brought girlfriends home after the pubs had closed, I realised what a passion killer the Westminster chimes were).

After taking the photos, we had our last lunch in the house: fillet steak with new potatoes and peas. As a special concession to my middle-class sensibilities, my mother didn't call it dinner and only boiled the peas for three minutes instead of the usual ten. Otherwise, everything was the same as it had always been: the table, the chairs and the cutlery, which had been bought with petrol-station coupons some time in the 1970s.

In two days time it would all be gone.

There was one thing left to do. My mother picked up her stick and put her other arm in mine. Together, we slowly walked to the local cemetery where my father is buried. "I don't think he's really here" my mother said, meaning "This might be the last time I visit my husband's grave".

We stood in front of the grave and I suppose it should have been a very emotional moment, but in the distance someone was holding an outdoor event and all we could hear was a man delivering a very bad performance of David Bowie's 'Rebel Rebel'.

I looked at the words on the gravestone: "He was a good man and did good things" - inspired by the final sentence of 'The Woodlanders'. I hope that Dad would have approved.

I have finished painting the flat, but tomorrow is going to be a day of flatpack hell, where I will have to work out whether Part A is the short screw or the slightly longer one, followed by the realisation that Part C is in fact Part E. I'm dreading it.

But hopefully, when my mother walks through the door on Friday afternoon and sees a warm, welcoming, comfortable home, she will feel relief rather than regret.