Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Young Delinquent

I found a wonderful book today, written by Cyril Burt. Written in 1925, "The Young Delinquent" is packed full of the latest cutting edge research on criminal behaviour in the young.

It also has some very helpful photographs to show the reader what these ne'er-do-wells look like:

This young man was clearly a bad sort. The lack of a cravat and cigarette holder single him out as a member of the criminal classes.

As for this brazen hussy, I can only hope that she was taken in hand by member of the clergy and shown the path to righteousness. But what makes a sweet, rosy-cheeked child turn into a hardened recidivist?

Sir Cyril researched the subject of criminal behaviour in the young for many years and codified his research into a sociological equivalent of the Periodic Table:

If you click to enlarge, you'll see that some of the contributing factors include illegitimacy, incorrigibility and being Belgian. On another page, Burt devaites from the received wisdom of contemporary criminology and blames delinquency on "Excessive local facilities for amusement".

85 years on, it all seems patently ridiculous. However in 1925, Cyril Burt's apparently exhaustive research, backed up with pseudo-scientific tables and photographic evidence, must have seemed pretty impressive.

You only have to look at this lad to know that he's going to be trouble:

These two girls have been sent to a reform school, but has it done them any good?

Yes and no.

It's interesting to see that people were fretting over the same issues nearly a century ago, looking for easy answers to complicated questions.

As for Mr Burt, he went on to become Sir Cyril and was recognised as one of the leading educational psychologists of his day. There is an interesting article about him here.

In the meantime, we should avoid exposing Belgians to an excess of leisure facilities, otherwise all hell might break loose.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More Forgotten Lives

Why did so many people use photographs as bookmarks? Until I started my current job, I assumed that the majority of bookmarks were a mixture of shop-bought "proper" ones, bus or train tickets, shopping receipts and scraps of paper. But no, they're nearly all photos.

I'm not complaining. I love opening a book and finding a random picture of a complete stranger, particularly when they have a cigarette hanging out of their mouth and are sitting on a ridiculously small horse:

The small animals theme continues with this lady in a rather festive hat:

I have no idea who these gentlemen are; they have a dark, Celtic look about them. As for their regalia, I wonder if it is Masonic - are these the famous aprons?

To return to the small animals theme...

The man is the spitting image of my great-uncle, Jack. He had a very strong Kentish accent and always sounded as if he had part of a Chelsea bun in his mouth. He made roll-ups with a little machine and once lit, he would puff away and slowly regale us with anecdotes that were, in hindsight, mind-numbingly dull.

But because I was only a child and he had the poise and confidence of a great raconteur, I assumed that my failure to find Uncle Jack interesting was a mark of my immaturity.

The bridegroom reminds me of a very advanced humanoid life-form in the 1950s science fiction film This Island Earth. With a forehead like that, he must have a very big brain, so I can only asume that his anecdotes were more interesting than my Uncle Jack's.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Derek's Last Chance

If you are new to this blog, click here, here, here, here, here and here to understand the background to this post.

1986 appears to have been a watershed year for Derek. It begins on a positive note, with Brenda's cantankerous mother finally dispatched to an old people's home. Derek and Brenda had waited for this moment for years, but in spite of this the spark of passion doesn't appear to have been reignited and the procession of migraines, aches and mysterious viruses continue unabated:

'My whole system creaks and groans; aches fill me; my head faintly throbs. Yet I have been out for an hour digging the garden. I had company: a blackbird. He was obviously in search of worms in the soil I was turning over, but though he came close, he had not the courage to stay close so that he might have had a whole feast. Men are like that.

I have felt somewhat wild today, have spent much of my time making foolish remarks and generally annoying people. I think my chemical imbalance has something to do with it, for while making a fool of myself, I KNEW that I was, but seemed unable to calm my inward turbulence.'

In fairness, Derek has many worries. Now in their mid-50s, Derek and Brenda are struggling to live on his salary as a local government officer. The diaries contain several letters from Derek's bank, including this rather chatty one, which was written in response to a lengthy epistle from Derek:

'Dear Mr -,

I thank you for your letter of the 12 August and would commiserate with you insomuch as NALGO have seen fit to turn down your rise of 6% and that indeed others of your union appear to wish for a sum which must surely in this day and age be unobtainable. I feel I ought not to continue in this vein as I feel that bankers like publicans should not get involved in discussing politics or religion with their customers. Unfortunately although you have stated you have got that point out of your hair, it is something which I find I cannot as most of mine has disappeared over the last 15 years or so!

Turning now to the mundane matter of banking and its relationship to your account, it would appear that were I to mark the overdraft limit on your account of £400, the present limit, for a period of three months, it would give you time to gather the harvest and review your finances.'

Derek does his best to live frugally, selling books and turning his garden into a mini-allotment, but the sums still don't add up. Under normal circustances, Brenda might have been able to get a full-time job, but she has a son to look after:

And this innocuous drawing becomes heartbreakingly poignant once you realise that the son was 24 years old when he drew this.

But it is not all doom and gloom. In the spring, Derek and Brenda have an idyllic break in Dartmoor with their son:

'We drove on over the moors, delighting in their austere grandeur. We would have liked to climb up a tor or two, but had run out of energy. Anyway, once we got to Ashburton, our strength came back and I was able to spend a happy hour in the bookshop there, acquainting myself fully with the stock.

We had expected to meet much traffic on the motorway, but found it almost deserted. Brenda suggested that the fear of radiation fallout was keeping people indoors. Anyway, we were able to maintain a steady speed all the way home, which meant that we got in an hour earlier than we expected.

It is good to be back with books about me and music. And space as well. And it is good to have just the three of us.'

The fallout was, of course, from Chernobyl:

'Radiation fear is strong in the land, but since there is little we can do in a practical way beyond consuming iodine tablets, I take little congnizance of the fear. The leaves on the trees are still as bright as they appear; the birds still sing; the traffic thunders by; and all this shall pass. On the coach travelling to work yesterday morning I was struck by the thought that the Saints shall "inherit" the earth, which implies that it will have to be cleaned and cleared and made anew before the Owner shall give it to them.'

Around this time, a glimmer of hope appears, when Derek's boss anounces his retirement. Having worked closely with Mr Sumpter for many years, Derek is the natural candidate to replace him. Perhaps this is the answer to Derek's prayers.

Full of hope, Derek submits his application and, a few weeks later, is invited for an interview:

'Well, I had my interview for Mr Sumpter's post this morning. It was scheduled for an hour and lasted for one hour and three quarters. There were four other contenders: a man from Lancashire, a man from Gloucester and a man from Rochdale. I was first through the door; and since half past eleven this morning have been waiting for a sign, the motion of a hand, a small telephone call that will announce "Yea" or "Nay". And the longer the silence lasts, the more sure I am that the post is not to be mine.

I have torment of mind and desolation of heart, for promotion is one thing, and the feeling of worthlessness if it does not come is something else.

We are having a year of disappointments. Our debts hang round our necks like albatrosses; and I am most strongly aware of having been passed over when it comes to assisting with the history of the church in this land. If only one was sure that heaven draws closer.'

Two days later, Derek learns that he has not been appointed as Mr Sumpter's replacement:

'Well, all my worst fears have come true. So sure was I that Mr Sumpter's post would not be mine, that I tossed and turned upon my bed all Wednesday night. When I got to work, no sign came, so I phoned Bob Sanders and after a brief hesitation, he told me that the man from Lancashire had got the job. I knew it would be him. The Spirit of the Lord whispered to my spirit most powerfully, the first time his name was mentioned, that he would take the job.

Bob said that all the interviews were good, but the panel felt that he had the most to offer when it came to solving the problems rife at the office. This implies that they felt that I was part of the problem; and perhaps I am. For my defence of Mr Sumpter has not gone well with the Insprectorate.

When I told Mr Sumpter of the decision, he turned haggard and grey. I thought he would weep; he was certainly extremely angry and he cried out "They do not know you! They do not know you!" He feels that his bad management is to blame and that by putting me in a position where I felt obliged to defend him, he shattered my chances. But I do not feel this is true. I feel the Lord has something else in mind.'

I can't help feeling that Derek's feelings about Mr Sumpter are more ambivalent than he suggests in this extract. But perhaps it is also tempting to blame his failure on the positive virtues of his loyalty to Mr Sumpter, rather than dwell on any personal shortcomings?

'I have received sympathy from many of the staff. As one put it, "Better the devil we know..!". Anne Snagge was particularly upset, as was Shirley James. Kind of them.

The pain was great on Thursday. I was in torment, feeling again the terrible worthlessness, the feeling of the last chance gone. Hell it was, and just as keen. But I have got my second wind now; and we eat and have a roof over our heads; we have great friends. And I am still quite the best off of the Saints in the ward. And the Lord stands by me. The test is his.

Brenda has been much tried by this blow. She is desperately worried by our debts and the fact that they are overtaking our income.'

A few months later, Mr Sumpter officially retires and Derek attends his retirement party:

'The food was excellent. Breaded chicken legs; pizza; pate; nuts; and a cake made by Mr Sumpter's wife in the form of a crossword puzzle. The icing was excellent, but the cake itself was rather dry for my taste.

As for the entertainment, Shirley and I did several short "telephone calls" demonstrative of the variations of John's surname. I wrote the script and it seemed to be a howling success, as were the two poems I had written for the occasion.

I then made a few remarks, and we presented a set of binoculars to Mr Sumpter, the pack of Mintoes from Callard and Bowser (a total surprise to him), and a large bottle of champagne. A pot of South African violets was given to his wife.

Wine flowed freely, but Mr Sumpter had bought me a large bottle of pure grape juice, and I was surprised at the number of other people keen to try it. Shirley James had never had Shloer before. How sheltered can you be?

I was at home just before half-past-seven to an empty house. I fed the bunnies and gave one of them a half-hour run up and down the hall. The other was asleep in its bed so I did not disturb him.'

Derek is now 56 and as he wrote earlier, feels that his "last chance" to advance his career has gone and in a sense, he is right. A few years later he will seek early retirement on the grounds of ill health.

With no immediate hope of paying off their growing overdraft, Derek and Brenda sit down one Friday evening and decide to sell the house. From Derek's writings, it is clear that he loves his home, particularly his library, with its books and classical records. This must have been a very hard decision to make.

But then suddenly, out of the blue, everything changes:

Brenda has been awarded an Invalid Care Allowance in keeping with the recent decision of the European Court of Appeal. This is an allowance made to women who are prevented from working by the need to look after a handicapped member of their family. The allowance has been back-dated to December 1984, so Brenda has been sent a cheque for £2391.75. This now enables us to pay off our overdraft; and for Brenda to put a large sum in her building society book. What a blessing! She promptly went out and bought some trousers and a pair of black shoes.'

The year ends with Derek and his family watching a video of "Back to the Future":

'A good plot, plenty of laughs, and sharp dialogue. But the old problem reared its head again: pointless, grating blasphemy. Why will these producers do it. Another film ruined.'

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 1970s Home

Yesterday afternoon, two wedding photos dropped out of a hardback compilation of a 1970s DIY magazine called Golden Homes. I'm not sure when the photos were taken, but I'd guess the late 1960s.

Here are the happy couple:

My wife's first reaction to this photo was one of utter horror: "It's her wedding day and she hasn't got any make-up on!"

The bridegroom and bride remind me of my parents who were, to put it politely, an "older couple" and had both given up hope of ever getting married until suddenly, Cupid struck in the somewhat unpromising environment of the National Savings Bank headquarters in Kew. After a whirlwind courtship of four years, my parents got married. I appeared almost exactly nine months later.

I wonder if the mystery couple - let's call them Roy and Mary - actually used their copies of Golden Homes magazine to "improve" their new house and give it a more contemporary look. If they did, here are some of the designs they might have used:

We all know what a wonderful colour orange is for living rooms and it's even better with a few zigzag stripes to add a bit of interest:

This is just the sort of room you'd want to relax in after a hard day's work and as a counterpoint to the orange, why not add an integrated bookcase and music centre?

This bedroom is probably more suited to bachelor pads, with its Mike Gambit-style dark colours:

As for the exterior, bricks are so drab. Why not brighten the outside up (and protect your walls from the elements) with this bright, cheery stone-cladding? Lovely.

We will never know whether Roy and Mary acted on the advice of Golden Homes, but I like to imagine them reclining in the black leather chairs of their orange living room, watching Nationwide:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sir Philip Gibbs

"If I have learned anything it is that pity is more intelligent than hatred, that mercy is better than justice, that if one walks around the world with friendly eyes one makes good friends."

You may already be familiar with the name of Philip Gibbs, but until I started working with secondhand books, I had never heard of him. That isn't unusual. Every day I handle hundreds of titles by authors whose names have disappeared from the collective memory of readers, but Gibbs wasn't just any writer.

It is hard to convey how famous Philip Gibbs was. In some ways he was the David Frost of his day, whose reputation as a journalist was equalled by few. Confided in by presidents, prime ministers and monarchs, the mere mention of his name opened doors that were closed to others.

It is difficult to write even a very potted biography of Philip Gibbs, as he led such a long and eventful life, spanning a period that began with George Eliot publishing Daniel Deronda and ended a few months before the Beatles' first No.1 hit. However, here is a brief outline:

Born in 1877, to a family that he later described as belonging to the "shabby genteel middle class", Gibbs grew up in south London with his four brothers and two sisters. The children were all educated at home, partly for financial reasons, but also because Gibbs' father regarded public schools as "Horrible dens of bullying and brutality."

By the time he had reached adolescence, Gibbs knew that he wanted to earn his living from writing. At 16, he had his first article published, in the Daily Chronicle. At 18, he got his first job, working for the publisher Cassell. He was just an office boy, but a chance encounter with the managing director H. O. Arnold-Foster led to a commission for what would become Gibbs' first book, Founders of the Empire.

At 21, Gibbs was married and keen to pursue a career in journalism. A stint at the Bolton Evening News soon opened the door to Fleet Street and his reputation slowly began to grow. But it was one story in particular which sealed Gibbs' reputation, when he exposed the American explorer Dr Frederick Cook's claim to have reached the North Pole as fraudulent.

During the First World War, Philip Gibbs was one of only five official war correspondents and his work during this period earned him a knighthood. It was a life-changing experience. Gibbs was appalled by the incompetence of the military and waste of human life. After listening to Gibbs describe the situation at the Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked that "if people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow."

But people didn't know. The official censors made sure that Gibbs' dispatches were heavily edited and the reading public were protected from the full horrors of trench warfare and the largely futile attempts to break the military stalemate. After the First World War, Gibbs had his revenge. In Now It Can Be Told, Gibbs launched a blistering attack on the military and made a plea for diplomacy to replace warfare, with all disputes mediated by the League of nations.

A liberal by nature who, in addition to his anti-war views, had also been a keen supporter of the suffragettes, Philip Gibbs was a controversial figure at times. But his prominence opened many doors and in the 1920s, he became the first journalist to interview the Pope (Gibbs was a Catholic, which must have helped).

By the time of his death in 1962, Philip Gibbs was one of the most well-known writers of his day. He left a huge body of work, consisting of over 40 novels and around a dozen non-fiction books, which in their day were bestsellers. So why has his name been forgotten?

It could be argued that Gibbs' obscurity says more about the ephemeral nature of journalism than his gifts as a writer. But George Orwell didn't suffer the same fate, so perhaps Gibbs' books just weren't that good.

During the last few months I've read two works by Philip Gibbs: a novel called Blood Relations and an autobiography called The Pageant of the Years. Both books were flawed, but highly enjoyable reads. Neither book deserves to be out of print.

Blood Relations is a story of love and war. The novel begins in Oxford, shortly before the First World War, and introduces a German aristocrat - Count Paul von Arnsberg - who has just graduated from Heidelberg and wishes to continue his education in Britain. At first, the English students are amused by his stolid, Teutonic manners and relentlessly earnest approach to life, but gradually they warm to Count Paul and when the term ends, he is invited to stay in rural Surrey (not an oxymoron in those days) with the family of a friend, Edward Middleton.

During the visit, von Arnsberg falls in love with Edward's sister Audrey and a few months later they marry. Their honeymoon is spent touring Europe and everything appears idyllic, but when Gibbs ends a chapter with the sentence, "It was very gay in Vienna in May of 1914", we know where the narrative is heading.

At this point, the novel really takes off. Audrey is trapped in Germany, living with Paul's family, while her husband is at the front fighting the very men who were, only a year earlier, his friends. It is a compelling story and, although it could be argued that the characters are rather stereotyped, Gibbs' even-handed approach to the combatants and his vivid descriptions of the reality of modern warfare make a refreshing change to the jingoistic, bellicose works of some of his contemporaries.

But this isn't just a war novel. In some ways, the most interesting part of the narrative is the latter part, which describes what happened to Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. Gibbs isn't subtle. He clearly (and prophetically) feels that the financial penalties placed on Germany can only lead to ruin. In this sense Blood Relations is more of a polemic than a completely successful work of fiction.

However, the author's intimate knowledge of trench warfare and 1920s Germany make this a compelling read and the narrative moves along at a good pace. I particularly liked the way the that Gibbs enables the reader to view the First World War through German eyes.

Overall, I loved Blood Relations and I'm sure that, in the right hands, this novel would make a fantastic film.

As for Gibbs' autobiography, it is a highly enjoyable read, but lacks the necessary combination of confessional introspection and shameless bitchiness of the greatest memoirs. Reading The Pageant of the Years is like meeting a very amiable gentleman who regales you with a succession of amusing anecdotes, but afterwards you realise that he has told you very little about himself. The nearest Gibbs comes to dishing the dirt is a subtle insinuation that Marie Corelli pinched his sandwiches at the coronation of George V.

Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings as a memoir, it is a highly entertaining read and I would recommend The Pageant of the Years to anyone who is interested in 20th-century history. Alongside his recollections of life as a correspondent in both wars, I was particularly fascinated by Gibbs' eyewitness account of the terrible famine in Russia, during the early days of the Soviet Union:

"In one village I remember we had as our guide a tall, middle-aged peasant. When he spoke of the famine in all those villages he struck his breast and tears came into his eyes. He led us into timbered houses where Russian families were hibernating and waiting for death. There was one family I saw who left an indelible mark on my mind. The father and mother were lying on the floor when we entered and were almost too weak to rise. Some young children were on a bed above a stove, dying of hunger. A boy of eighteen lay back in a wooden settle against the window sill in a kind of coma. These people had nothing to eat - nothing at all."

I was also touched by this recollection of a meeting with Ramsay MacDonald, when he was Prime Minister:

"One day after another lunch...he drove me back in his car to the House of Commons. There was a detective sitting in front with the driver but we had a glass screen between us and could talk privately.

'My dear Philip,' he said suddenly, 'I am a broken man. I can't put two sentences together, and I can't put two ideas together. I am blind, and old, and useless.'

He grasped my hand and clung to it, like a small boy needing comfort and my heart was filled with pity for him, and I was stirred by the poignancy of this tragedy. But when I left him I was disturbed by the thought that a man in this state of mind and body should be Prime Minister at such a time in our history."

Gibbs was no Orwell, but he was a good journalist who lived a remarkable life and the best of his writing - the earlier novels like the semi-autobiographical Street of Adventure (which used to be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in journalism) and his works of non-fiction - deserve to survive.

What I find most surprising is that nobody has written a biography of Philip Gibbs. From a biographer's point of view, the raw materials of Gibbs' life offer an embarrassment of riches. Here is a man who was born in the middle of the Victorian age, in a world without cars, telephones or cinema. When Gibbs died, the Space Age had already begun.

Sir Philip Gibbs travelled extensively, witnessing some of the most momentous events of the 20th century at first hand and meeting many of the people who were responsible for them. In his writing, he always comes across as a man who is seeking to understand and convey the whole picture, rather than reinforce any preconceived ideas.

Once a household name, today Philip Gibbs is largely forgotten. This is a great pity, as everything I've read by and about him suggests that Gibbs was a remarkable individual, whose compassion and loyalty earned him many friends. As far as his work is concerned, perhaps the sum is greater than its parts - he didn't seal his reputation with a masterpiece - but it more than deserves a new generation of readers.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Decade That Fashion Forgot?

As Frank Skinner once said to Sophie-Ellis Bextor, why the wide face?

This passport appeared in a crate of books yesterday, belonging to a man who worked as a "Sales Exec" - a job description that probably used to be even more ambiguous than it is today ("Yeah mate, I'm in the import-export game, if you get my meanin'").

Only in the 1970s could a suit look so scuffy, but nevertheless this man would have been a style icon for boys of my generation, who thought that when they grew up they'd have long hair, pull birds and drive a Cortina.

I didn't become an adult until the 1980s, by which time punk had put paid to the wide lapels, long sideburns and kipper ties. I felt cheated.

As for "birds", I read The Female Eunuch when I was 17 and was horrified to learn that the seemingly foolproof chat-up lines in The Sweeney were actually offensive to many women. From then on, I vowed to never treat a woman as a sex object.

I spent the next few years at parties watching women go off with men who'd seduced them with quotes from The Sweeney ("Get yer coat luv, you've pulled") while I travelled home alone on the night bus.

Thanks a million, Germaine Greer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Perils of Thelonious Monk

I think I can now safely conclude that at least 70% of people in the past used photos as bookmarks (with only 1.3% using actual bookmarks as bookmarks). It's bad news for the bookmark industry, but very good news for the blogosphere.

Here is a small selection of photographic bookmarks from the last two days:

Here we see a fine, upstanding British family from the early 1960s, in front of their Ford Anglia. Although they are on holiday, Father wouldn't be seen dead without his tweed suite, matching cap, brown brogues and club tie. It would also be unthinkable for David to appear in public without his uniform.

But something terrible happened to this family. They discovered modern jazz and everything changed:

The country casuals and school uniform have been replaced by polo neck sweaters, dark glasses and semi-nudity. These two innocuous photos encapsulate the huge revolution in social attitudes that took place in the 60s.

This looks like the author photo of a minor writer of Welsh short stories in the 1950s (now out of print). Perhaps it is. Somebody is on the bridge, looking down at him.

A group shot from the 1962 military manoeuvres of the Women's Institute, shortly before they decided to abandon violence. The vicar looks slightly nervous:

In addition to some enjoyable photos, these illustrations caught my attention:

"Take that, Fritz!"

In this, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, we are quite rightly celebrating the pilots who downed Messerschmitts at a rate of four to one, but what about those plucky chaps who landed on German airfields and engaged the Luftwaffe in hand to hand combat? Their story must be told.

Finally, an example of jacket design from the golden age of crime writing:

A fine example of a striking image and catchy title. The man appears to be in some sort of distress, possibly in reaction to a big snatch. It makes you want to read the book.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yesterday in London

The BBC weather forecast predicted rain on London Bridge today, so I left my umbrella at home and set off for the Mayor's Thames Festival, looking forward to an afternoon of al fresco drinking with some old friends from university.

Although I generally prefer peace and quiet when travelling by train, there's something infectious about the excitement of people travelling up to London on a Saturday. Everyone seems to be in a good mood, unlike the funereal atmosphere of a weekday commuter train, where the only sounds are the clicking of laptop keypads and the chimes of incoming text messages.

After finding a seat, I looked at my fellow passengers. In the seats in front of mine, two young men were playing a game of poker, with their cards spread out across the four-seater table. At Haywards Heath the carriage suddenly filled and an old couple asked the young men to make room. I thought I felt I felt a slight frisson of tension, but five minutes later the old man had joined in the game (which he won) and the woman was talking about going to rock concerts. By the time the train had reached Clapham Junction, they all were on first-name terms.

I never really pay much attention to Victoria, but today I noticed how clean it was compared to the shabby, depressed railway stations of my childhood. Now that we're living in "austerity Britain", will we enter a new era of flaking paintwork and broken vending machines?

I met my friends on Southwark Bridge, which had been closed to traffic and filled with long tables, stalls selling organic food and - at the far end - some bales of hay and two cows. Having just spent a week surrounded by dairy cattle, it was weird seeing people making such a fuss of the cows, as if they were exotic beasts being presented to a medieval court.

Southwark Bridge was packed and at first glance, there seemed to be a cosmopolitan crowd from all over the world. However, it was an illusion. No matter where people had come from, they all appeared to be from the liberal, left-of-centre middle classes. As I walked through the crowds I heard the same words over an over, like an incantation:

"Organic...natural...chorizo...vegetarian...authentic... unpasteurised...vegan...Fairtrade..."

Rural Britain had apparently come to London, but there were no ruddy-faced men in Barbours or women in tweed skirts with wicker baskets, let alone machines spraying pesticides on the stalls of vegetables. I'm not complaining. As a closet hippie with more than one Pentangle track on my MP3 player, I loved it. The Mayor's Thames Festival gave us a brief glimpse of how London could be if we swapped cars for cows.

I found my friends sitting in the middle of the bridge, drinking perry. Within minutes, we had reverted to the highly intellectual level of debate that we enjoyed at university and the topics covered included the following: ELO vs Sailor, what percentage of the population were sexually arousing (as opposed to just attractive), the South West music scene (Portishead vs The Wurzels), the XX, which countries had the ugliest people and whether William Hague really was gay. We had been drinking.

In between talking nonsense, I managed to film a few clips on Southwark Bridge. You can briefly hear my friends discussing the pressing issues of the day:

These days I spend most of my time pretending to be grown-up and sensible, so it is a welcome relief to have absurd conversations with people I've know since my teens. I shall be back there in 2011.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Imperial Splendour

Another photograph album has arrived at work. This time, it's a 1970s Selfix© collection of 2" square black and white photos that are so small, they must be the same size as the negatives. Luckily, my ancient scanner isn't daunted by the prospect of maginification and the results are quite good.

The photos feature British Army personnel - probably doing their National Service - in what looks like the early 1950s, during the closing years of the British Empire. The setting for the pictures appears to be Hong Kong:

Working with books is all very fine, but the best thing about my job is that I can take these unique photographs and diaries (that were destined to be dumped on landfill sites) and send them out into the world.

The first image, in particular, is superb and should be in a photo library.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Found Today..

It's always hard returning to work after an idyllic holiday, particularly when the children are back at school and there's a whiff of autumn in the air. But the blow is softened by the fact that I no longer work for these people and I now get to find things like this:

I used to assume that the day would come when I'd no longer be amused by the addition of beards and glasses to pictures of people, but this still makes me laugh. Slightly.

As for the next jacket, it makes you realise how times have changed:

I was quite excited to find this signed dedication by William Golding:

However, I had a bit of an awkward moment when someone from the warehouse presented me with this "signed" copy:

I tried to explain that a 1970 book about the paintings of Goya couldn't possibly be signed by the artist, but I ended up feeling like a patronising git.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

La vie comme elle doit être vécue

I have just returned from a week in Normandy that has opened my mind and hardened my arteries.

After a fruitless search on the internet for a gîte, my four-year-old son managed to find one for us (his social networking skills are already far superior to mine) via a friend at nursery school. It was both cheap and, more importantly, in an idyllic setting.

This was the view from our bedroom window:

Admittedly, you have to like the sounds of church bells, cows mooing and the scuttling of harvest mice in the rafters at night to fully appreciate this gîte. There were also rather a lot of insects. However, in between the bells and the moos, it was incredibly quiet.

I'll refrain from a dull travelogue. I visited the usual tourist sites: Mont St Michel, Bayeux and the D-Day beaches, including the remains of the artificial harbour at Arromanches:

I also discovered some beautiful churches, many of which were eerily quiet. In spite of its town centre location, the Eglise Saint-Pierre in Coutances was completely deserted:

As for Mont St Michel, it was depressingly commercialised, with a mixture of countless gift shops selling hideous souvenirs and overpriced cafes staffed by surly waiters. At 9.00 in the morning it was tolerable, but by 11.00 the narrow alleys were packed with people, all pushing in different directions. On my way out, I saw a forlorn-looking woman sitting in a wheelchair, abandoned by her companions.

But in spite of everything, it was a magical place that, like Venice, made me feel as if I had stumbled into a fairy tale. The view from the top was particularly awe-inspiring:

But what impressed me most of all was Normandy itself. It wasn't just the beautiful landscape, empty roads, lack of police cars, rich history or absence of fat people (how do the French maintain their figures on red meat and cheese?) that appealed. It wasn't even the fact that in today's so-called globalized age, hardly anyone spoke English. I think what I particularly valued was the different attitude to living.

President Sarkozy has repeatedly urged the French to become more like the Americans and British, but it we who should be more like them. We should close our shops on Saturday afternoons, take long lunches, drink red wine, have affairs, discuss philosophy in cafes, go on strike, wear Printemps instead of Primark, take our children out to lunch, subsidise unpopular art and start smoking again.

I have been back for less than a day, but I've already booked next year's trip.