Friday, July 30, 2010

More Random Things Found at Work

A few weeks ago I discovered that we were going to start receiving books from Ireland and sure enough, the number of titles about obscure saints has suddenly shot up. This is my favourite:

I've heard of the Hand of God, but what is this all about? Is it a more casual form of divine intervention, for less important cases? Either way, it's a wonderful jacket.

The addition of Ireland to our supply chain is a real bonus, as the quality of the books is generally high, but it does make it harder to trace the origin of some of the obscure items that are hidden between the pages. For example, is this badly-composed photo from Britain or Ireland?

It definitely isn't Sussex, but I'm pretty sure this is:

I'm almost certain that it's Hastings. I found it in an album of photos that were so dull, even the owner gave up after seven pages. This picture is one of a pair and shows how important the resort was as a tourist destination, with bustling coach parks and crowds of tourists. In this picture you can see a building with a sign saying "POLICE. INQUIRIES. LEFT LUGGAGE", so it was clearly a busy place.

Here is another, more exotic form of travel:

This is a quintessentially 1950s Dan Dare Britain, still hanging on to its status as an imperial, maritime power; now conquering the stars with an army of grammar school children, probably called Colin and Jean.

Perhaps "Return to the Lost Planet" was bought with this:

This Book Token card was designed by Rowland Hilder and comes with its own detachable bookplate, which has a smaller version of the cover. I know that these sorts of pastoral images can seem a bit naff, but there's something very appealing about this one.

Here is a frontispiece from the Edwardian era:

In an age when a lot of us are getting our knickers in a twist about the burqa, it's easy to forget that we also used to have some fairly conservative ideas about dress. A century ago, the removal of one's hat could cause both outrage and, sometimes, a sexual frisson. The lady on the left looks as if it's all too much for her.

Things were quite different 30 years later, on the eve of the Second World War:

Admitedly, this is unusually saucy for its time, but the mere fact that it was published shows how much the social mores had changed.

Fast-forward another 30 years and you find covers like this:

I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for someone who grew up in the age of hats and smelling salts to see covers like this. Sodom and Gomorah! I suppose it didn't happen overnight, but I'm sure that my Great Aunt Nancy must have thought that the world was coming to an end.

But while some people were losing their inhibitions, others were improving their diction:

I wonder what the criteria were. Presumably, in addition to not speaking as if you had a bun in your mouth, anything too "common" or regional was out. But were points added or taken away for speaking like Noel Coward? I'd love to know.

Finally, something I found two hours ago:

It is an 18th century exercise book, with beautifully-written notes and drawings on trigonometry by a gentleman called Francis Bird.

Holding a book that is over two centuries old is exciting enough, but there is something really special about something unique like this. This is a book that, several years ago, would have ended up on a landfill site, so I'm really glad to have the opportunity to save it.

Now all I have to do is find someone who wants to buy it. I wonder how many 18th century trigonometry fans are out there?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

So short, it's almost a Tweet

I have just received my favourite job application of all time:

"i would like to hand my vc in to you iff there is any jobs going"

(if he actually does have a Victoria Cross, then I take it all back)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Middle Class Angst

According to an article in yesterday's Guardian magazine, the good times are over for the middle class. A combination of economic recession and a fundamental change in the way we work, described as an "ongoing hollowing-out of the middle ranks in the British job market", will see an increasing number of people struggling to maintain a lifestyle that felt like a birthright.

I read this article with a curious detachment. Perhaps this is because I have never felt truly middle class. I have all of the trappings: a BBC accent, hundreds of books, a permanent supply of balsalmic vinegar, tasteful contemporary watercolours on the walls, Laura Ashley sofas (thank you Joyce) and the obligatory wooden floor, but I still fear that knock on the door, when they come to arrest me for impersonating a middle class person.

I grew up in a house where there were no novels and slept under nylon sheets that glowed in the dark with static electricity. My mother read The Sun and kept our loo rolls in knitted covers with a plastic ballerina at the top. We were the respectable working class. My parents believed in hard work, owning your own property and saving rather than spending. To them, gambling, smoking and drinking were utterly immoral and threatened to plunge them back into the class that were striving to leave behind.

I was the cuckoo in the nest. I spoke with a different accent, listened to Sibelius and liked "funny food". In later years, my father asked why I wanted a wooden floor: "In my day, that meant that you couldn't afford a carpet."

I clearly wasn't working class, so I must be middle, but when I read the Guardian article I still found it very hard to relate to any of the people mentioned. I certainly had nothing in common with a couple in Richmond, who earned at least £150,000 between them, but I also felt pretty remote from the Ormsby family, who were cited as being at the poorer end of the middle classes.

At first we seemed to have some things in common. Like the Ormsby's, we were driven out of London by the property prices and led a pretty frugal existence, expecting a week's holiday in France if we were lucky. But then I read that Kate Ormsby earned £39,000 and her husband, who worked in the same department had a lower-paid salary. Realistically, that put them on at least £60,000 per annum.

I have worked out that we are living on around half of that - hovering around a figure that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculated was the absolute minimum that a family of four could live on.

This "Minimum Income Standard" was announced a few weeks ago and in some ways, reading it came as a relief. Rather than feeling guilty for not managing our finances properly, I realised that we had worked minor miracles, surviving on a relatively low income. There have been sacrifices but when I look back to the 1990s, when we enjoyed a double-income and several holidays a year, I still feel richer.

I can think of several couples who work absurd hours, paying exhorbitant childcare fees just so that they can live the dream. They have the house in leafy SW London, the obligatory three or four holidays a year (including a trip to Lapland at Christmas) and the perfectly-designed garden. The fact that they barely see their daughters doesn't seem to come into the equation. The children have everything they want (apart from parental contact), go to an expensive class on Saturday morning and have a whole wardrobe of party dresses. What more could anyone want?

This recession will be a challenge for many, but I hope that people will use the current demise of the consumer society as an opportunity to realise that the "lifestyle" myth of the last 20 years hasn't made anyone happier. Indeed, many of us have become oppressed by debts and clutter.

I'm not romanticising about being skint. I'm not sure if poverty is good for the soul (I'm sure that the Poet Laura-eate wouldn't think so), but when I see people who earn four or five times as much as me looking so miserable, I can't help feeling vindicated. The best things in life are free, whatever the adverts say.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Happiest Day?

A lot of the books I deal with at work must come from house clearances, as I keep finding wedding photographs hidden amongst the piles of book club editions and eight-volume sets of "The Illustrated War News".

I used to think that all wedding photos looked the same, apart from the changing fashions. But I was wrong. In the post-1960 pictures, everyone looks genuinely, almost desperately happy, but in the older photographs it's interesting to see that there are quite a few dissenters. Take this picture, which I found yesterday:

I can see a rather unhappy father, a relieved bride, a mother keeping up appearances and a sister and brother who have witnessed the whole sorry business. Here's a close-up:

A great photo, but my favourite is still this image, which I posted a couple of months ago:

The face of a condemned man. I wonder what happened next?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The News Before it Happens..

I'm not a betting man, but I think that we can be fairly certain that the following images will appear in the press this summer:

1. A woman sitting on someone's shoulder at a rock festival:

The woman will invariably be someone who looks as if they normally work in HR. Indeed, most of the people who appear in these crowd scenes look like nice, middle class people who went to good schools and don't have a criminal record. Whatever happened to Hells Angels, nudity and hard drugs?

2. Some girls in bikinis on Brighton or Bournemouth beach:

Apparently yesterday was hotter than somewhere a lot further south that's normally much hotter than here. Or something like that. Anyway, it's a good excuse for newspapers to have a large photo of girls in bikinis.

3. A group of young women receiving their A Level results:

Apparently, all ugly people leave school at 16, leaving the higher education system exclusively for the use of beautiful people with good hair. Every year, the papers publish photos of pretty teenage girls opening their "A" level results.

Sometimes the girls are so excited by the results, they decide to celebrate with some hot lesbian sex (or is it just me who sees this particular subtext?)

Anyway, it's all very annoying. I want to see more people with acne and greasy hair. Also, I'd like to see someone really disappointed with their results. But no-one ever is, which neatly leads into the next news story:

4. Some students being shown to be demonstrably cleverer than ever before:

Look at these lads. They've all got straight As. My spindly, malnourished generation were happy if we got a C and scraped through to East Anglia or Kent. And when we got there we never said we went to university, because that would have been lording it above the people in polytechnics and colleges. Now, everyone's much cleverer and they all go to uni.

5. A photo of students in gowns accompanying an alarmist article about the lack of university places:

Apparently the Government didn't know that we were all becoming more intelligent and failed to expand the higher education system to accommodate the extra A grade students. The Daily Mail, which one week earlier implied that these exam results weren't worth the paper they're printed on, will now happily take the Government to task for failing our young.

6. Some British holidaymakers stranded somewhere abroad:

It used to be French air traffic control, but now we have terrorism, volcanic dust and bankrupt tour operators to contend with. Wouldn't it be easier to stay at home?

These tired clich├ęs are wheeled out every year, accompanied by articles that probably come from a template somewhere. Unless something interesting happens, I shall be avoiding the news until September.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Age of Derek

Here are the latest offerings from the Book of Derek (if you're new to this blog and the name of Derek (Peace be upon Him) means nothing to you, then click here):

"And then in the bus station, Jacki Richards jumped out on me. It was more than I was willing to endure. With some force I told her to stop haunting me, that she was making a laughing stock of herself and that I was a married man who was twice her age and more and not prepared in any way to compromise his marriage even by a shadow of a relationship with another woman. She turned pale and said that it was my friendship she wanted.

We then got on the bus and I invited her to sit next to me. She started to make banal conversation. I told her that such conversation was an anathema to me. I then got out my book and started reading. She fidgeted."

"I made a terrible joke in one of the marriages I performed today. The surname of one bride was 'Winter'. At the end of the ceremony I shook her by the hand and said 'Fear not, Winter is past.' There was silence; and then a great roar of laughter from the guests."

"The town has been invaded by thousands of scooter bikers, many of them as shorn and decorated as Lamanites. There have been a few dozen arrests already. As I went to catch the bus this morning, one was wandering about wrapped in a purple blanket, his blond (sic) moll in tow. They were seeking breakfast without too much success at that hour of the morning. While I was standing in the bus station they dragged themselves by. After a while they returned. The lad was shouting at his moll 'How stupid! Fancy thinking we'd find them in a f*****g coach station!' He was not a man I would introduce to my daughters."

"A new temporary lady started with us today. She drove me home in her little mini and bombarded me with questions about the Church the whole way.

A most articulate blackman came into my office this afternoon to complain about Mr Limpet, who treated him in a most brutal and insulting manner for merely passing through the wrong door. The man was most upset. I put him on the internal line to Mr Woodcock, who is seeking enough evidence to damn Limpet once and for all.

Unfortunately a Labour Council is in power at the moment and they will defend their own kind, however villainous they be, to the death. That is their sadness."

"Well, my imprecation at the Creative Writing Group was a great success this morning. As one gets used to the other members of the class, one tends to notice a polarisation of views on various aspects of literature that show the period of others of greater age as opposed to the younger members. And there is a strong streak of feminism in Kathy Jones, probably due to her unhappy marriage. The subject of bad language came up and there was a tendency to say the use merely reflected the reality of life. Pam Bolloch said that she would rather not hear such realities; and that was an end of the subject."

"Last Saturday when I was in the garden, Richard decided that we ought to make a gift of some of our rhubarb to Mrs Reames. He pulled out a stick and proferred it to her. All though (sic) it had not been my intent to bless her, I did not want to seem mean so I gave her a dozen sticks. I then took the opportunity of discussing her youngest son with her. He has been coming out of her flat then leaping over our side wall to get out to the road via our gateway. I suggested to his mother in the kindest way that it was possible that my foot might come in violent collision with his crutch if he did not desist. He seems to be desisting."

"We wasted our home evening last night by watching part of the Sound of Music. Despite our many watchings the magic of this film remains, in spite of the fact that Sue draws our attention to details that are best left unnoticed, such as Julie Andrews wet armpits in one dress. And there is a lovely scene where Christopher Plummer calls Julie Andrews 'captain' instead of 'Fraulein', a line fluff that the filmmakers have kept in, and a wise decision it was."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dick Grant, R.A.A.F

This photo fell out of a book today. It is clearly a snapshot and yet there is something quite remarkable about it. On the back, a note reads "1944, With your Aussie drinking mate at Tel-Aviv. Dick Grant. R.A.A.F."

It isn't just Dick Grant's great presence that makes the photo so special, but also the four girls in the background, smiling and laughing, against the backdrop of what must be the Mediterranean sea.

Dick Grant sounds like the hero of a Boy's Own adventure. He even looks like one. It's frustrating that we will probably never know what happened to him, but I've posted this photo on the offchance that an answer might appear out of the blue. Stranger things have happened.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reynolds Stone

The weekend hasn't quite turned out as I'd planned. Yesterday I set off in the morning for a beach party in Suffolk and was planning to take lots of bloggable photos of Dunwich Heath. Instead, I found myself in Essex, attached to an ECG machine. For a few terrifying minutes, I thought that was it.

My memory of the experience is hazy, but I do remember thinking that a mistake had been made somewhere. I was relatively young and healthy, ate my five a day and could fit into a pair of 34" waist trousers. I drank a bit too much wine, but didn't that thin the blood?

I also vaguely recall a slight disappointment about the banality of what might have been my final thoughts.

However, I slowly began to improve and the ECG tests showed that I had a healthy heart. Five hours later I was watching Placido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra. So what did happen? I shall see my GP tommorow and hopefully find out.

As I have no photos of Dunwich, here is something much better that I found in a book last week - seven illustrations by Reynolds Stone:

Thursday, July 08, 2010


Two months ago I wrote this post about the recent Paul Nash exhibition. It had rave reviews (the exhibition, not my blog post, sadly) in the press. The general feeling was that at long last, Nash was receiving the recogition he deserved as one of the most significant British artists of the inter-war years.

Two days ago, I found this letter tucked away in a first edition of a novel called "Stanton" by Desmond Coke:

Stupidly, I hadn't noticed it when I was sorting through the books that had just arrived. It was only later, when someone said that they'd found a letter by someone called Paul Nash, that I realised what we had found.

In the letter, Nash praises Desmond Coke for his novel about life at a public school, but gently chides him for being too coy about the homosexual relationships that were common in that environment. Whether Coke read Nash's comments is uncertain. The letter is dated April 7th 1931; Desmond Coke's obituary appeared in The Times on April 28th.

I have contacted an auction house and at some point the letter will be up for sale. In the meantime, I'm enjoying being the temporary custodian of a piece of history.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Madness Visible

I have ranted on several occasions about vanity publishing, but perhaps I was wrong. Without self-publishing, the world would be denied an opportunity to read this book, which I found yesterday:

I've read the blurb several times and I'm still not sure what it's about, but perhaps I should let the author explain:

The idea for writing "Heritage and Nelson" was conceived by the realization that so much of our heritage is fast disappearing and once lost can never be regained. I can think of no better example of heritage than Nelson and his Captains combined with the strength of English oak. I have gone back to the times when rocks, mountains, seas, plants and creatures were born, for all these things have a bearing on our lives today. "Why?" you may ask "Go back to the mists of the beginning?" - because everything in nature is born.

Does that clear it up for you?

The book seems to be in three parts, beginning with a brief overview of the geological history of the earth, up to the birth of Lord Nelson. This neatly leads into the middle part of the book - a celebration of the life of Lord Nelson. However, the book's true purpose remains a mystery until we reach the third and final section, when it is revealed that "Heritage and Nelson" is actually all about the author, Les Winter:

Here are a few photos, with Les Winters' original captions:

"Les Winter in a very thoughtful mood while actually working on this book"

"The wall above the fireplace in the Nelson bar"

"Actor Producer John Neville and Les Winter share a joke on the bowling green"

"The author finds time to relax for a few moments with friends in the bar of "The Lord Nelson"

Enter "Mine Host"

As you can see, the book is a complete Winterfest.

"Heritage and Nelson" seems to imply that Les Winter is part of some apostolic succession of great Englishmen and, for all I know, perhaps he is, or was. The dustjacket blurb gives a brief biographical sketch of the author's life, mentioning that he is "dead keen" on natural beers, local archaeology, folk lore and nature, but manages to tell us very little about the man himself.

I suspect that he was a "character".

Self-published books are usually a poor imitation of professionally produced ones, but occasionally I come across ones like "Heritage and Nelson", which have a mad genius about them. They are the outsider art of the book world, possessing a unique vision that defies the conventionally accepted criteria of what constitutes a good book.

With the best will in the world, Les Winter has written an utterly absurd book, which probably should never have been published, but in another life it could have been a rip-roaring blog. It's a great pity for Les that he was born in 1920.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Something New

Many thanks to Richard at Grey Area for mentioning the show of work by the art students at Hastings Art College. I went yesterday and it was one of the best things I've seen for a long time.

It was really refreshing to see the work of people who hadn't become part of the system and while some pieces were quite derivative of artists like Grayson Perry, Tracy Emin and the Chapman brothers (who are Hastings alumni), there were others that had a very strong voice of their own.

But derivative or not, nothing I saw was boring.

I almost didn't go. My wife was given a new book to proof-read and needed a clear weekend to meet the deadline. I was on child duty. Was it really worth going if I had to drag two very reluctant boys with me?

In the end, my oldest son wasn't well enough to go and quarantined himself in cyberspace. I decided to take a chance with my younger son, hoping that he'd be have a slightly less jaded attitude towards anything that smacked of culture. To my surprise and delight, he loved the show. He was captivated by the sculptures and installations, laughed at the deliberately absurd pieces and described some works as "beautiful".

At four years old, my son had no idea what "art" was and treated the exhibition as a thing of entertainment and wonder. Having him with me actually enhanced the experience.

Here's a selection of the range of exhibits on display:

For some reason, this was my son's favourite, although he was also very taken with the exhibits in this room:

Later, during some fish and chips on the seafront, my son went into a reverie. I asked him what he was thinking and he replied "I'm imagining what fun I would have if I was at the place where they make things."

I've always liked the more traditional equestrian clothing, but I think I could get used to these.

These are five separate frames, with a depth of more than ten feet between the first and the last. As you can see, viewed from the front they form a whole.

This is one of a series of cheeky illustrations that use quotations from Shakespeare.

I really liked the way the work was exhibited and loved the building, which has beautiful sea views like this:

The college will shortly be moving to a new purpose built building, so this was my first and last visit to the Archery Road campus.

Finally, I came to the display of work by Richard's Graphic Communications students:

I loved this and really want to get hold of one - I'm going to make enquiries. Being a true hypocrite, I went shopping at Tesco this afternoon. I feel dirty now, and not in a good way either.

Eat your heart out, John Hinde. These postcards are better than anything you'll see on sale at the gift shops and tourist information centres.

I was very impressed with these jacket designs for four dystopian classics. I trust that they would get the thumbs-up from James, at Caustic Cover Critic.

Without the cultural baggage and self-importance of the "art world", this exhibition was fresh, funny and fearless. It did everything that art should do, but so often fails to once it has become labeled and commodified. That doesn't mean that everything in it was brilliant, but even in the less impressive works - the sub-Tracy Emin canvases or the imitation Grayson Perrys - there was still an authentic voice.

It's a great pity that this exhibition lasts for only a few days before disappearing into the ether. What will happen to these students? How many of them will be able to make a living from their talents, particularly in our new austere financial climate? With funding for the arts under a greater threat than ever, the outlook seems bleak.

But art always seems to thrive during difficult times, when people need it more than ever. So perhaps, after the rather depressing era of Brit Art and silly money, we are about to enter a golden age.