Thursday, July 23, 2009

There's Something Strange, in the Neighbourhood...

When I arrived home this evening I was greeted by my older son, telling me that he'd found something 'amazing' that I 'wouldn't believe'. I got ready to feign astonishment at an ordinary, everyday object, but he was quite right. I've never seen anything like this before.

Obviously it's some sort of chrysalis - hopefully not of extra-terrestial origin. If my family start treating me with a modicum of respect, then I'll know that this is an 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' scenario. Otherwise I can only assume that this is about to become a butterfly. This photo fails to do justice to the beautiful gold sheen on the casing.

In a scientific experiment, I have worked out that I can run from one end of my garden to the other in under three seconds. But in spite of its bijou proportions, the garden is full of wonders:

Heaven in a wild flower.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Age of the Gentleman

I have now been in my new job for three months, although it feels much longer. I wouldn't presume to call myself an expert in antiquarian books, but it's amazing how much you can learn in a few weeks and I can now confidently throw certain titles into the skip without needing to check their value.

I know that almost every gardening book published after 1900 is worthless. I also know that titles written by Arthur Mee, J.B.Priestly, Mazo de la Roche, Hugh Walpole, Frances Parkinson Keyes and Alec Waugh are two a penny.

But even after I've removed all of the middlebrow 1930s novels, book club editions, reprints of the Pilgrim's Progess, sets of encyclopaedias and Reader's Digest publications, I'm still left with thousands of books. To confuse things further, I often find things that aren't books.

Yesterday I found a superb 1928 catalogue from a department store specialising in gentlemen's clothes. I'd never heard of Welch, Margetson & Co, but apparently they were one of the leading companies of their kind, with eight banches in Great Britain, six in Australia and one each in Ireland, New Zealand and Canada, plus agents in every continent.

The London branch had four floors, with whole departments for items like sock suspenders and umbrella handles. Here is a small selection of their wares:

Before they became associated with old age and hospices, these dressing gowns were the height of sophistication.

I'm quite fond of the yellow one, whilst my son prefers the Tom Bakeresque one in the upper middle.

Try to ignore the 'Hitler on Ice' associations. After the bushy moustaches of the Edwardian era, these 'taches were the epitome of style. Hitler's popularity in post-Weimar Germany had nothing to do with his policies. People just loved his cool moustache.

The Hitler moustache's popularity obviously waned somewhat after the Second World War (as did the name Adolf) and only the ghastly egotists General de Gaulle and Franco continued to wear them.

What superb jackets! Stylish, well-cut and clearly good quality. I would pay good money to own any of them.

It's strange how contemporary these designs look; to me, at least. I wasn't expecting to find such high quality colour illustrations in a catalogue from 81 years ago. I suppose that Welch, Margetson & Co could afford it, as their clientelle weren't hard up.

I want to be one of these men, exchanging jovial banter over a postprandial glass of port whilst my chaufferer sits outside, rubbing his hands to keep warm. Actually, in reality I wouldn't be able to enjoy myself knowing that some poor bugger was freezing to death on my account. It's a flaw in my pretensions to be a gentleman.

Ah, the sheer decadence of having to deliberate over the design and colour of a pair of slippers. How grim our sweatshop-made, utilitarian clothes look by comparison.

The bathing suit is a pleasing alternative to the pot-bellied, tattooed, nipple-pierced British tourist in the Costa del Sol (and if a certain friend of mine is reading this - no, this isn't an oblique reference to you).

I hope it goes without saying that I haven't forgotten the other side of the 1920s and 30s, as chronicled by Orwell and Steinbeck. Indeed, my family probably never set foot in Welch, Margetson & Co and if they had, I expect that they would have been ushered out.

My grandfather was an unskilled labourer in the 1920s. He joined the army in the First World War before he'd had a chance to learn a trade and spent the rest of his life living on the breadline.

One day he got a maintenance job with London Transport and had a slightly Chaplinesque accident with a ladder whilst walking through a tunnel. He fell on the electric line and suffered serious burns, but in those days the concept of sick leave was regarded as some mad, Bolshevik plot. He ended up having to take his two weeks' annual leave at Clacton-on-Sea, where his family relaxed on the beach whilst he was treated at the local burns unit.

As I have said before, the recent past was a great time if you were rich, white, male and abled-bodied, but it could be fairly unforgiving to anyone who wasn't.

The likes of Welch, Margetson & Co were for a certain type of person:

I don't know exactly when they disappeared, but it looks as if a combination of Michael Caine, nylon and sweatshops were the cause of their demise. I wonder what my grandfather would have made of it all?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Futurism at theTate

I always avoid going to art exhibitions with friends.

First, there's that whole dilemma about whether you should walk around together or not. Second, rather than dutifully look at each painting for 15 seconds, I prefer to spend minutes with the ones I like and ignore the rest, which makes me a bad gallery companion. Third, if I'm with a friend I haven't seen for a long time, we invariably start chatting and forget where we are.

Yesterday, I broke my golden rule and visited the Tate Modern's Futurism exhibtion with two friends from university.

I would like to pretend that we had a culturally enriching experience, but the truth is that whenever I meet up with these particular friends we seem to revert to the age of 18. I'm not complaining. Yesterday I laughed more than I have done for months, but next time we should just go straight to the pub.

However, I did learn a few things about Futurism. The exhibition began, appropriately, with the Futurist Manifesto - a passionate, absurd declaration of war on 'decent society'. One of my friends particularly liked the phrase 'the broom of madness'. I wonder what the Futurists would have made of the Tate's revential exhibition, given their determination to 'destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind'.

We did what we could to keep the spirit of Futurism alive at the exhibition and I hope that Marinetti would have been proud of us.

As for the art, much of it left me cold, but there were a few works that really impressed:

This photo doesn't do justice to the real painting, which had such vibrant colours that it almost appeared to be self-lit.

I particularly liked Bursting Shell, by Richard Wynne Nevinson.

This painting wasn't in the exhibition, but I like it so much I couldn't resist including it.

I've no idea who painted most of the pictures. The best I could do was take photos of my favourites until the attendants told me off. I don't know why photography isn't allowed - I didn't have the flash on.

The final exhibit was familiar, but I couldn't work out why:

Then I remembered - my son's Star Wars 'Battle Droid' has neo-Futurist quailities:

I left knowing slightly more about Futurism than I did when I entered, but not a lot.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Terra Australis

When I started my new job, I thought that I would be dealing with a completely random selection of books. However, I've noticed that each donation has its own unique theme. This week I've dealt with the library of a psychiatrist, a collection of books by Jewish writers and a some rather strange titles about Australia and New Zealand, all published in the 1880s. Here are two examples of the latter:

I somehow doubt that the author was referring to the Aborigines.

In the second example, the heathen Maoris are being given a good talking to by the Pioneer Bishop. The book contains some illustrations of grim-looking schools, built for the education of the natives.

Although the books were very different from each other, they all shared an appalling attitude towards the indigenous population.

This episode in British history is obviously highly regretable, but would you want to live in a world without Rolf Harris?*

* From a 2014 perspective the answer may be yes.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Just Desserts

I listened to two podcasts today during my drive to work. The first - a discussion about Logical Positivism - made my brain hurt a little, but at least Melvyn Bragg made his guests explain what it was before assessing its impact.

I find it much easier to listen to programmes like these in the car, as I'm not able to nod off. However I did find my attention wandering every time I saw normal, everyday things like pigeons, traffic light and roundabouts. My thoughts followed a depressingly familiar pattern: Wittgenstein...Cambridge...MAN IN SHORT TROUSERS...SEAGULL...Freddy Ayer...Language, Truth and BUS STOP...Moritz Schlick...Vienna...WAITROSE...

To add to the distractions, my wife rang me in the middle to tell me that she was taking our youngest son to hospital, as he had his finger stuck in the letter G. At that point, I think I lost the plot, but I can still tell you what Logical Positivism is, which is more than I could do yesterday.

The second podcast was an excellent Composer of the Week programme about Stravinsky in America and there was one particular anecdote which amused me.

During his years in America, Stravinsky developed a great friendship with WH Auden, who wrote the libretto for his opera The Rake's Progress, but there was one aspect of the poet's behaviour that upset the composer and his wife. Apparently, Auden's personal hygiene was dreadful. His fingernails were black with dirt and he never used the towels and soap that were put out for him when he came to stay.

Some years later, the Stravinskys were in New York, where Auden and his partner - Chester Kallman - invited them over for dinner. Vera Stravinsky was particularly dreading the meal and as she entered Auden's filthy flat, her worst fears were confirmed.

After a few drinks, she reluctantly visited the loo and found a bowl on top of the cistern with a horrible brown object in it. Appalled, she quickly flushed it down the loo and return to the meal, trying to forget what she'd just seen.

They all finished the main course and Chester Kallman proudly annouced that he'd made a chocolate pudding: 'I've been cooling it down in the bathroom...'

WH Auden, whose wrinkled appearance once prompted the comment 'If that's what his face looks like, imagine his scrotum!'

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When a bad day at work suddenly becomes a good one...

No dust-jacket, but still worth a few pennies. Like the signed, first edition Siegfried Sassoon I found a few weeks ago, it was in a dusty plastic crate, surrounded by dog-eared paperbacks and worthless book club editions of forgotten novels.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Spaced Out

Today, somewhere near the bottom of a box of books, I found a stamp album. Within 0.25 seconds I'd gone from thinking 'What's this crap? to visualising the rare, unperforated 1872 Ceylon 2d blue that was waiting to be discovered.

I opened the album and was disappointed to see that none of the stamps had been issued before 1950. I decided to test out a theory which claimed that you could tell how wealthy a country was by its stamps. The richest nations are supposed to have small, dull austere stamps whilst the really poor countries have beautiful, large, colourful panoramas.

The results seemed to confirm the theory: Denmark - boring, USA - boring, France - boring, Rwanda - beautiful, Belgium - boring, Cameroon - beautiful...

The collection seemed to be completely random until the penny eventually dropped and I noticed a recurring theme: space.

The stamps mostly looked as if they'd been designed by the same person, with lots of earnest-looking astronauts, rockets blasting into space and satellites beaming propaganda into the living rooms of the civilised world. However, one nation bravely decided to buck the trend:

Good old Equatorial Guinea. Their stamp commemorating the three dead cosmonauts of Soyuz 11 is in a class of its own. There can't be many stamps (if any) that feature corpses.

I also noticed another set of stamps produced by Equatorial Guinea celebrating the success of the manned mission to Venus - something that has never happened and probably never will.

Apparently stamps are quite a lucrative export for developing countries, so you have to admire the Equitorial Guinean Post Office for staying one step ahead of the space programme. I look forward to their series celebrating England's World Cup victory.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Five things I have learned this week...

I've stopped listening to the radio when driving to and from work. I can't bear the news anymore because it's always the same:
  • A politician gets caught fiddling their expenses
  • A company that has been bailed out by taxpayers' money has just paid large bonuses to its senior managers
  • Someone has decided to secure their place in paradise by blowing up several dozen strangers
  • 'Swine flu' is now at an epidemic/pandemic/plague/total annihilation of humanity level (followed by the muted acknowledgement that most people have actually recovered)
  • A soldier has been shot in Afghanistan.
It can only be a matter of time before the BBC start broadcasting repeats of the news. Perhaps they already are.

But even worse than the news is the irritating, banal chat of the 'drivetime' presenters. Even Radio Three - once a glorious bastion of elitism - now has a limerick competition during its morning programme. I do not want to listen to puns about Liszt written by someone who wears leather elbow patches on their tweed jacket and hasn't had sex for 37 years, if ever.

Fortunately, the BBC now makes podcasts available of some of their best programmes and I no longer have to endure inane presenters and depressing news stories. I can now listen to clever people talking about fascinating subjects and by the time I get to work I feel invogorated.

Here are five things I learned from last week's podcasts:
  1. Cancer drugs aren't expensive because of the research and development. They are simply priced at a level that 'the market will bear', according to Adam Wishart, who made a documentary about the ethics and economics of cancer treatment.
  2. Companies that bottle and sell spring water are, arguably, violating the United Nations article that defines drinking water as a human right, not a commodity.
  3. The BBC is working on a new project nicknamed Canvas that will incorporate digital and broadband services into a new, free service, available to all.
  4. John Bradshaw, the Chief Judge who tried King Charles I for treason, wore a hat with metal inside it to protect him in the event of an attack.
  5. Russell T Davis believes that the nature of writing for film and television is about to change significantly, as a new generation of writers are appearing who have grown up in the computer game era.
Thank God for the podcast. I have been liberated. Here is a link to what is, arguably, the best podcast of all.