Friday, July 20, 2012


Normal service will be resumed at the beginning of August. In the meantime, here is a short intermission:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wet Afternoons

My wife has been ill since yesterday, so I have been busily washing-up, cleaning the house and entertaining children. I wish I could pretend that my motives were entirely altruistic, but if it's a virus I may be a day or two behind and need to ensure that I receive the appropriate level of care when my wife recovers.

I was going to take my sons out, but the weather has been terrible. Instead, I'm ashamed to say that that are both playing computer games while I've been comparing different performances of a piano composition by Bartok called, ironically, 'Out of Doors'.

When I first became interested in music (which curiously coincided with the onset of puberty), it was very difficult to listen to a recording before I bought it. I suppose I could have asked the man in Richmond Records to give me a quick blast, but he had mastered the art of condescension to the point where I was too scared to even ask for a bag. As a result, I was completely dependent on the wonderful Penguin Stereo Record Guide, written by Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton and Ivan March.

At an age when I should have been snogging or drinking 'snakebite', I was more likely to be found checking which version of Tapiloa was Robert Layton's recommended recording. My youth was not so much mispent, as unspent (at least, until university).

The Penguin guide was usually spot-on, but occasionally I'd be disappointed to discover that so-and-so's performance was much slower or faster than expected and I was unable to listen to the music without a nagging sense of regret. If only I'd had access to YouTube, perhaps I might have learned to realise that every approach has its merits.

For example, here are four performances of Bartok's 'Out of Doors' suite. If you try the first 40 seconds of each, you'll hear some very different approaches to the music.

In the first extract, once the pianist has made himself comfortable and checked that he hasn't lost his bus ticket, he delivers plays with an almost machine-like tempi, but at least you can hear all of the notes:

It's a solid, rather unexciting performance, but he's a dab hand (or foot) with the pedals. However, I prefer the next version, where the faster tempi produce a greater sense of urgency:

Much better, although he's a little to free and easy with the sudden, brief changes of tempo. I really like the next version too:

Fast and very percussive, with a real sense of momentum. However, the faster speed results in a loss of detail in the passage around 25 seconds - he could take a few tips on pedal use from the Clive James lookalike in the first clip.

Finally, this performance takes a very different approach. It probably doesn't help that the pianist left his glasses at home and has to lean very close to the keyboard:

This is one of the ways in which I waste my time on wet weekend afternoons when everyone else is occupied. I've also been reading Angelica Bell's autobiography (thanks to the person who recommended it in one of the comments).

I was enjoying a guilt-free afternoon. I'd built up credits this morning by going shopping in Lewes, emptying the dishwasher twice, playing Monopoly with my son and doing domestic chores, but daring to write this blog post has tipped me back into the guilt zone. There are still unwashed plates and two children who need to be dragged away from cyberspace.

How long is it until their bedtime?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Taking the Waters

I've no idea who this man is, but I have his photo album. Compiled around 100 years ago, the captions are written first in German, then later in slightly stilted English. I think he may have married an Englishwoman.

Today, when the collective memory of war still taints Anglo-German relations (and the audience of 'Britain's Got Talent' boos a man who announces that he's from Germany), it's easy to forget how close the two countries were before the First World War. The sense of kinship with 'our German cousins' was reflected in the late Victorian vogue for Teutonic names like Hilda, Walter and Gertrude.

People even went on holiday in Germany. When I suggested going there to my wife, she snorted and looked at me as if I'd made an indecent suggestion, but I think she'd be pleasantly surprised if she went here:

This is Rothenburg, a rather attractive-looking medieval German town. I had wondered if it had been flattened in the War, but fortunately the far-sighted mayor of Rothenburg and a senior figure in the US military worked to ensure that the town was relatively unscathed:

A century ago, the album's owner stayed at Rothenburg before moving on to a spa town called Bad Kissingen, where he met a man called Sir Lionel Phillips (seated):

Phillips was a remarkable man. Born in London to a family of Jewish merchants, he went to South Africa to make his fortune and at the age of 20, walked the best part of 600 miles from Cape Town to the diamond mines of Kimberley, where he went on to become a diamond sorter, ran a newspaper and managed a mine.

When this photograph was taken, over 30 years later, Phillips was a wealthy mining magnate and politician, with a colourful career behind him. Perhaps too colourful for some people. In December 1913, he was shot five times by a disgruntled South African trade unionist.

Sir Lionel survived and perhaps he came to Bad Kissingen to take the waters and recuperate. I can only assume that Herr Doktor's treatment worked, as Sir Lionel lived for almost another quarter of a century.

I quite fancy the idea of spending several weeks in a spa town, but it would have to be an old-fashioned one with exiled aristocrats and American heiresses. Obviously gyms would be out of the question, but strange machines and ridiculous diets would be allowed (compulsory, in fact).

In the evenings I'd dress for dinner and, perhaps, attend a chamber music recital or discuss Schopenhauer with pallid young women.

Phillips appears in several photos, including this grainy shot:

And this group portrait, with Phillips on the left:

Sadly the rest of the album largely consists of blurry shots of well-known landmarks around Europe, although there are some interesting views of Sir Lionel's Hampshire estate, Tylney Hall (now a luxury spa hotel), which he and his wife Florence restored, incorporating the latest Arts and Crafts designs. Even Gertrude Jekyll was roped in.

'Mrs Lionel Phillips'

There are also two more photographs of unnamed people:

The final photograph is from 1916. The trauma that was experienced by thousands of Anglo-German families is vividly portrayed in Philip Gibbs' underrated novel 'Blood Relations'.

In the 1920s, once the vitriol against the Hun had subsided, the cultural ties between Britain and German began to be restored, but of course it was not to last. Sadly, Sir Lionel lived long enough to witness the rise of Naziism.

Unlike most of the photograph albums I've come across, this one gives the reader a few clues, but the lack of dates and the often illegible script is frustrating. I had hoped that there might be a memoir or biography about Phillips, but I can't find anything.

As for the mysterious figure who created the album, I don't suppose that I'll ever discover his identity. But thanks to him, I have discovered a place I want to visit and a life that I'd like to know more about.

I'll send a postcard from Rothenburg.

Saturday, July 07, 2012


At the beginning of the week I was thinking about how much more interesting this blog used to be when I had access to the vast collection of photo albums and journals that ended up in my old workplace. I miss the personal diaries and the extraordinary pictures that used to lie hidden in a delivery of ex-charity shop books. I miss Derek.

Hours later, by an extraordinary coincidence, my ex-boss phoned. I hadn't spoken to him since September. He wanted to know if I'd consider returning to my old job. I was flattered to be asked and said that I would think it over, but I already knew the answer.

Going back is always a mistake.

I thought ruefully about the photographs I'd never see; but in the second odd coincidence of the day, later found an album at the bottom of a box of dusty books:

The photos appear to have all been taken in South Africa around 1911, but the writing is in German. It's possible that some of these scenes were taken in Namibia, which was then the German colony of South-West Africa.

Some of the scenes look cosily European, but others provide a stark reminder that these people were in a very different environment:


I presume that this is a double exposure, rather than any exotic variety of local fauna

Although this is Africa, the natives barely feature in this album. They can occasionally be seen in the background, quietly, invisibly performing the menial tasks that allowed the Europeans to enjoy such a high standard of living.

Mr Krause

This photo is one of several that shows damaged buildings and vast crowds of men. I wondered if there was some civil unrest in this period between the Boer War and First World War, but couldn't find any references.

This is my favourite picture - an extraordinary image which looks staged, but I'd like to know more about the background (or 'backstory' as everyone seems to say now)

This album raises so many questions. Are they German settlers in South Africa and if so, what happened to them when war broke out in 1914? If they lived in South-West Africa, did they remain when the colony was ceeded to South Africa, or did they return to Europe?

The children might have lived until quite recently. I wonder what their stories were.

Finding this album reminded me that my favourite part of working with 'recycled' books was always the photos, with their tantalising glimpses of lost, forgotten lives. However wonderful a book might be, it is always one of many. A photograph album is unique.

I have been distracted by other things during the last nine months, but I'm going to find some new sources of pictures. There's nothing I like more than restoring a worn photograph into an image that gains a whole new lease of life on the internet.

I'm sure some readers of this blog will remember this:

I hope that there's a lot more to come.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Television Centre

One of the best books I've come across for a long time is a beautifully-produced 1960 hardback, celebrating the opening of the BBC Television Centre in White City, London. That might not sound terribly exciting, but aside from being a stunning piece of architecture, the Television Centre was also emblematic of Britain's changing identity.

I was just going to post a succession of images from the book, but to really capture the energy and optimism of the period you need a bit of BBC Radiophonic music. This clip features a 1960 composition by Desmond Briscoe called 'TV March' :

The optimism of the clip is at odds with the reality of a country that was bankrupted by the Second World War and had only recently abandoned rationing, but modernity seemed to offer a new hope. If Britannia could no longer rule the waves, perhaps it could conquer the airwaves (I'm sorry, it's been a long day).

The following three decades were, arguably, the golden age of British broadcasting.

My favourite image from the book

It's hard to believe that the Television Centre is now over 50 years old, but someone in the BBC clearly feels that it is past its use-by date and in 2010, an official announcement stated that all broadcasting from White City would cease by 2013. Thankfully parts of the building are listed.

I have only been to the Television Centre once when, due to a horrible misunderstanding, I appeared on Radio Five as a science expert. The building felt like a powerhouse, packed with enthusiastic people in their 20s, rushing around in a very organised manner. I felt like plankton.

In a multi-channel, digital age, perhaps we no longer need a huge, modernist behemoth at the heart of the BBC, but I'm sure that I wouldn't be alone in mourning the demise of Television Centre.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Happy Birthday Dad

My father would have been 86 today. Sometimes I wish that I could magic him back to life, if only for a day, but I also know that within ten minutes he'd be telling me an anecdote about his scouting holidays and not listening to what I was saying.

If I asked him what the afterlife was like, he'd probably tell me about a chap he'd met who knew Lofty Woods, who was stationed at the same RAF base as Bill Kent and suddenly we'd be back to the frustrating conversations we had when, as a teenager, I tried to get my father to talk about his feelings.

But my father came from a different age, when talking about emotions was regarded as effeminate or weak. You just put the lid on and got on with things. Perhaps this attitude became more widespread during and after the First World War, when the phrase 'unspeakable horror' became more than a figure of speech.

His parents were both working class and when my father left school at 14, he seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in a factory. But then the War came and with it, National Service. My father joined the RAF and spent two years working as an electrician, servicing and repairing Lancaster bombers.

After he was demobbed, everybody expected my father to return to his old job in the local factory, but he had other ideas. Instead, he went to night school and studied for the Civil Service Entrance Exam.

He passed the exam and joined the National Savings Bank as a clerical assistant. It was a poorly-paid job, but my father regarded it as a step up the social ladder and during the 1950s, he sought to acquire the trappings of a gentleman. Sometimes he didn't get it quite right:

I remember cringing with embarrassment as a child when my father appeared in ordinary social situations wearing a bow tie. Other children's dads dressed casually and drove modern cars. My father drove a 1960s Morris Oxford and wouldn't be seen dead without a tie. He even shaved twice a day.

With four decades between us, many people assumed that he was my grandfather. His 1930s childhood was very different from mine.

As part of his social ascent, my father joined the Young Conservatives and remained a diehard Tory for the rest of his life. Sometimes he felt that they were a little too left-wing and was very relieved when Margaret Thatcher got into power.

During my teens I had a very difficult relationship with my father and every meal turned into a blazing row. We disagreed about everything. Politically I regarded myself as fairly moderate, but in my father's eyes I was a militant socialist. When I started listening to classical music my father was delighted, but the moment I started to play "that flippin' modern rubbish" we clashed.

In hindsight, he was a man in his mid-50s who was frustrated by so many things, not least his job. After years of drudgery his career was really taking off and he had been offered one of the higher posts in the Civil Service, but was losing his sight. It had been a gradual process and both my mother and I had grown used to telling him what colour the traffic lights were when he drove, not facing the reality of his blindness. When my father agreed to take early retirement, it must have been a very difficult decision to make.

I was a classic example of "Be careful what you wish for". My father wanted a middle class child, but made the mistake of thinking that it would result in a Hay Wain-loving, Conservative-voting clone. Instead, he had an intolerant, opinionated prig who ridiculed his views.

Luckily we both grew up and when we stopped feeling threatened by each other, we rediscovered the love that had always been there. I learned to see my father in the context of his background and realised what a remarkable journey he'd made.

I can't speak for my father, but I hope he saw that I possessed the same sense of moral conviction that drove him. We may have ended up holding opposing views, but we held them for the right reasons and both despised people who were motivated by self-aggrandisement.

As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the best things about my father. The flip side of his bigotry was a moral courage and sense of conviction that didn't waver under pressure. His love was never conditional and he was incredibly loyal to people.

The bigotry was frustrating, but if I bought home friends who didn't conform to my father's ideas of normality, he still was unfailingly polite. I remember him cornering one friend, who was black and dressed in outrageously foppish clothes, trying to convince him to join the Civil Service.

Today, I judge my father by his actions, not his views. He could be maddening to talk to, but in spite of everything he said, he was one of the kindest people I've known. When he died, I asked people to send donations to Sightsavers rather than waste their money on flowers. In less than two weeks, we had raised enough money for over 50 cataract operations. The funeral was packed.

My father almost died in 1994. His last eleven years were spent living a diminished life, limited to short journeys that made him feel terrible. But when my oldest son was born, he found a new reason to live.

As I descend deeper into fatherhood and hear myself uttering the same banal cliches that my father did, tutting at the vacuous children's television presenters and complaining about declining standards, I feel a growing sense of humility.

I am my father, but possibly not as good.