Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Since I posted some images from an 1860s photograph album at the weekend, the number of daily hits has shot up, so I thought I'd spare the new visitors the effort of trawling through previous posts and give some of the highlights of this blog.

I am a bookseller. I have spent most of my working life managing bookshops for chains like Ottakar's and Waterstone's, but last year, I was given the opportunity to set up a project selling pre-ISBN titles that had failed to sell in charity shops. Every day, thousands of books pass through my department and I regularly find things that have no financial value, but give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of others.

Here are some of my favourite finds from the last year:

This slip of paper fell out of an obscure 1940s novel. What does it mean? Is it one of those "When the red swan flies over Moscow, there will be light snow" coded messages that spies used to send to each other? I can't think of any other explanation.

Someone commented that this picture looks as if it should be the cover image of a Smiths LP. I found it in an album of photographs of young British men doing their National Service in 1950s Hong Kong.

There is a wonderful book called Boring Postcards, but few of the entries can compete with the sublime dullness of this card of a Catholic church in Western Australia. What possessed the makers to include the kitchen and toilets?

This is the beginning of a letter from a woman to her doctor's surgery. I've no idea why it was used as a bookmark.

This appeared in a programme for a village fete. Roy must be a remarkable man, but who is he? Perhaps the answer is here:

An odd photo and a fairly ghastly sofa. Surely this isn't where where Roy employs his healing hands?

This is something terribly poignant about this photo, from the hideous soft furnishings to the open flap of the Dimplex heater, suggesting a lonely, out of season break, in a long-forgotten seaside resort. Is her enigmatic Mona Lisa smile there because she's leaving or just arrived?

This was written in the back of an Orwell novel. If the National Service photo could be the cover of an album, this could be the title.

During the last year I've developed a geeky interest in the 19th century colour printing processes, as I had no idea that the Victorians had the technology to produce things as beautiful as these plates. You can see more examples of Louis Hessem's art here.

And there are more examples of Victorian colour here and here:

I wonder if any of these books were read by this child:

This rather haunting photo is one of several dozen from an album that features an Edwardian children's home. It reminds me a little of one of my favourite films, The Amazing Mr Blunden.

On the subject of children:

They say that children are growing up too quickly these days, but this is ridiculous! Some commentators suggested that this is the length an adult will go to to win a competition.

This is another rather strange image. I've no idea what it was doing as a bookmark in a rather dull textbook.

I really like this photograph of a RAAF airman, particularly with the four girls in the background. It was taken in the Middle East in 1944. A blog reader later checked the airman's name and discovered that he survived the War and lived to a ripe old age.

This photo looks like the cover image for a Penguin 2oth Century Classic. So does the picture below:

I love even the most mundane images and during the last 18 months, have acquired a huge collection of photos.

But I still get excited by the books. Particularly when they're 420 years old:

It's a Bible, published only 120 years after William Caxton established his printing press. Like so many items, this also narrowly escaped being thrown in a skip. When I found it I began looking for key phrases from the King James version, completely oblivious to the fact that I'd found something even older.

I have a whole drawer full of things that I've rescued from oblivion. But as far as I am concerned, they're only truly saved if they can be seen by others and it has been great to see how well people have responded to these occasionally sublime, but usually ridiculous finds.

When I'm not blogging about random things that I find in books, I like to explore some of the more obscure corners of England - forgotten places like the Isle of Grain, or decommissioned nuclear bunkers. There are also posts about the darker side of Ladybird Books, the disturbing world of Candy and Andy and clips from some of the stranger films and television programmes of the 60s and 70s.

But the posts that seem to have moved more people than any others (the 1860s photos excepted) are those featuring a local government officer called Derek, whose diaries appeared in my office after a house clearance and this post about a modern photograph album that I found in a box of books.

I have no idea how long it will be until I find another item as interesting as last week's album of mid-Victorian photographs, but I'll continue to post anything I find that gives us tantalising glimpses into the forgotten lives of strangers.

Thank you for visiting.


Helen Brocklebank said...

What a wonderful idea to offer a kind of summary of all the best bits. The Age of Uncertainty is a cabinet of curiosities, each post yielding new and unexpected treasure. Maybe it's not a cabinet of curiosities as much as a box of delights? Either way, I am always so happy to see that there's something new for me to read. Thank you.

Mrs Jones said...

I fully approve of this version of 'Previously on The Age of Uncertainty....' and have thoroughly enjoyed reading absolutely every episode. Your blog is one of my favourites and I am, most definitely, a Follower of Derek.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Love the photo of the welder - reminds me of a similar image Tony Hart once did in the early 80s while we children watched him on Take Hart, ending with a wonderful kaleidoscopic arc of welding fireworks in pastel. But a rare image as photograph I would imagine.

Great idea to compile some potted highlights for all your new readers to catch up, though personally I think there are some even more sublime ones such as the
Ladybird Going to Work pastiche you did whilst you were unemployed!

sukipoet said...

Oh my. So many Mrs. commentators (is that the correct word?). Perhaps I should call myself Ms. Pope. Well, i did enjoy reading this summary. I read your blog occasionally and picked up that you worked somewhere where these old books crossed your path but enjoyed having a fuller picture.

I have never heard of the movie The amazing Mr. Blunden nor did I know that Lionele ?? was Dick van Dyke's father. It is all most fascinating. And yes, Derek's diary so sad. thanks, suki

sukipoet said...

Lionel Jeffries had to click back to get his name, though I am familiar with it.

Anonymous said...

I think your posts are fascinating. Trivia and arcana are two of my favourite subjects. Thank you for sharing your finds with us.
Canadian Chickadee

By the way, the word verification for this post is
chingsli -- seems to fit right in with the chinoiserie theme!

Martin said...

Since stumbling across your blog, I've become a regular visitor. 'The Age of Uncertainty' certainly is among my favourite places in the blogosphere.

Annabel said...

I love your blog Steerforth - keep bringing us all these wonderful ephemera (one of my favourite words).

tristan said...

dear sir, i am writing to renew my season ticket ...

Birdy said...

Absolutely lovely blog here with those fascinating photos and watercolors. I loved it, please keep posting more.

Steerforth said...

Thank you all for your words of encouragement.

Anonymous said...

Another most captivating post.

I enjoyed the Victorians but have to admit, they frighten me - their faces are the stuff of Dickensian nightmares...or maybe a bad acid trip - no?

These photographs and bits of thought long forgotten by the folks who they once belonged to are much more to my liking...what a fascinating job you have - I'm a bit jealous I think.

Kath said...

A few months ago I stumbled upon your blog and after reading your profile laughed out loud and knew your posts would be great. Now I read your blog last every night so that I know when I turn the lights off and go off to bed there will be a smile on my face.

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Joy said...

Looking forward to more curiosities being rescued from oblivion.
I must have missed your Isle of Grain post. You went in the wrong direction, head for Cooling and the Cooling Marshes (Dickens setting for Great Expectations). Wonderfully atmospheric although when I posted Egypt Bay (near the sea wall) on by blog a reader commented that the Isle of Grain frightened her as a child and still does.

Meenoo said...

I love your blog. Derek is interesting enough but I love the pictures of old crumbling ruins and old photographs the best.