Saturday, February 05, 2011

Hokey Cokey

My mother's description of working class life in the 1940s and 50s always sounds relentlessly grim: a world of ration books, grey skies and smog. But perhaps if she'd spent more time socialising with the people in this photograph album, which arrived in my office last Wednesday, my mother would have had a different perspective.

The people pictured in these photos - Joyce, Beryl, Les, Ginger, George, Terry, Barbara, Joan, Jimmy, Pam and Johnny - all seemed to know how to enjoy themselves and show a very different side of working class Britain in the mid-20th century. The so-called traditional English reserve doesn't seem to be much in evidence here:

This photo was taken in Richmond in 1947. I thought it was all ties and frumpy dresses in those days, but this couple have style.

So does this young woman:

This is a still from an early Ealing version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, featuring Stanley Holloway as the voice of Aslan.

This picture disproves my work colleague's assertion that "all people in old photos are ugly."

This picture has an appealing air of underlying menace: "'Allo Charlie. A little bird's told us that someone's been a naughty boy..."

The Hokey Cokey. These photos were taken in the early 50s at the "Constitutional Holiday Camp" in Hopton, Norfolk. It looks like my idea of hell, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.

Men dressed as women and women dressed as men.

This looks rather unsavoury, but it appears to be consensual

As my colleague at work pointed out - wife, baby and pint of beer - he's got it all

This is real manhood in its flawed perfection, when a pipe said more about a man than the skincare products he used. If someone invents a safe, cancer-free pipe, I'll be first in the queue.

A slightly more wholesome scene

This ties-in neatly with the last post

Thirty or forty years on

Every photograph in the album is from the early 1940s to late 1950s, with the exception of this picture, which is hard to date. I can recognise a couple of faces from the earlier photos, but it is shocking how much people's appearances change.

I would love to know how we end up with these albums. I suspect that each story follows a similar trajectory: someone dies, or is moved into a home, and an executor organises a house clearance. I used to assume that these people were childless, but Derek had four children and none of them wanted to keep his diaries.

These albums have no financial value and were destined to be thrown away, so I feel very privileged to be in a position where I can capture some of their contents and cast them out into the blogosphere, where their true worth can be appreciated.


Mo said...

What a wonderful collection of photographs.

Anonymous said...

The heavy-set fellow with the wavy hair, dimples, wife, baby, and cigarette, reminds me of my late brother-in-law, who sadly died of a heart attack at the age of 49. I hope this fellow met a better fate!
Great to see the photos though.
Canadian Chickadee

Kári Tulinius said...

It's odd that today, while women-dressed-as-men is considered quite stylish, men-dressed-as-women is still thought of as quite ridiculous. Manliness is apparently quite a brittle construct that can't take much alteration without being shown up as an absurdity. Which, speaking as a betesticled individual, I find quite saddening.

Oh, and I agree, nothing quite completes a look like a pipe. Too bad they're cancerous and often quite malodorous. I suppose there are other herbs besides tobacco one can smoke, some of whom are probably legal and not too life-threatening. Sadly the soap bubble pipe doesn't have the gravitas of the non-novelty kind.

zmkc said...

If you are going to throw any albums or diaries away, please send them to me instead. I love looking at them - they combine mystery with banality, in a curious way - (and, of course, they're funny, especially when combined with your captions.)

Brett said...

I miss the hungry years
The once upon a time
The lovely long ago
We didn't have a dime

Great photos. Made me think of Last Orders, the film version of Graham Swift's novel.

Our children won't have to worry about what to do with our photo albums when we go.

Poetry24 said...

I love these photographs that fall into your hands from time to time. When a family disposes of collections like these, it really raises questions about values, doesn't it?

I remember holidays at Butlins where, oddly enough, people did appear to be enjoying themselves. Knobbly knee competitions really did take place!

David said...

I think that you are really doing something wonderful by posting these pictures, but my appreciation of them is as much because of your commentary as it is because of the pictures themselves. Martin H commented that

"When a family disposes of collections like these, it really raises questions about values, doesn't it?"

I think this is rather harsh. I imagine a grieving family, probably under pressure to clear a house to sell, with no storage space, and busy children and work, just not wanting to face the task of sifting what is worth keeping. That's why house clearers make a living after all. But even if they did try, they would never have any context for the photos - context such as your well informed, sometimes acerbic comments provide. I know I have boxes boxes of my father's photographs in the attic, including pictures he too or developed as an RAF photographer in the Second World War. I sort of know how these fit into his life because he showed me to them as a child, I suppose it's up to me to make the effort to do this with my own children - if I don't and they subsequently dump the lot, it's my fault, not theirs, isn't it, for not providing the context? Your short comments and research do that, and make these pictures, which would otherwise just be old shots of dead strangers, real, alive and interesting.

Steerforth said...

David - I think you have a point about grieving families. I can think of more than one occasion where people have dealt with grief by having a manic clear out, only to regret it later.

But I've also seen people behave quite callously towards the dead person's property, almost taking a delight in trashing treasured possessions.

Thanks for your kind words about the photos and comments - they take quite a while to clean up in Photoshop, so it's really gratifying that people enjoy looking at them.

Martin - I also went to Butlins and made my poor father enter the hairy legs competition (he had the least hairy legs I've ever seen, which only added to the humiliation). Looking back, the whole place seemed like a rather benign open prison.

Brett - You're absolutely right, it is pure Last Orders territory.

zmkc - If I ever rename this blog, Mystery and Banality will be at the top of my list.

Kári - I suppose the good thing about a pipe is that it doesn't need to be lit, whereas an unlit cigarette looks absurd.

You're right: men as women doesn't work as well. I once dressed up as Anni-Frid from Abba for a video and thought I'd scrub-up as a pretty good woman, but to my huge disappointment, I was quite ugly.

Chickadee - 49? You're making me nervous. How awful for your sister.

Mo - Glad you like the photos. By the way, I've really enjoyed looking at your blog - what a fascinating job!

Poetry24 said...

I'm sorry if my comments were perceived as 'harsh'. I think this kind of action does bring values into question, but it's a two-way street. Of course, people can't be expected to form any other attachment to their family albums, beyond curiosity, if they've never been engaged by their parents/grandparents, etc. So, as Dave supposes, it's surely up to us to make the effort with our own children.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Almost worth selling to someone who wishes they had a real family history (ie those without too many photos/much knowledge of their family or who were adopted).

How can people be so ruthless though? Surely an album is the least you make room for when handed down to you. Even though I'm not particularly close to my family, I still appreciate the photos of the long-dead rellies I never met, if not more so!

Lucy R. Fisher said...

When the Victorians had their likeness taken by daguerrotype, why didn't they write their name on the back!??? And explain how they were related to the others? I suppose they slotted them into albums and wrote the info under the pix.

Junie said...

What fun photos. I especially like the one of Dorothy hugging Auntie Em while sitting on the back of the Cowardly Lion.

I have two huge scrapbooks that belonged to my grandmother's sister, Leona. They are full of dance cards, theatre programs, ribbons from corsages, telegrams and her comments ("We had a peachy time at the dance.") They date from about 1914-1917. No photos, unfortunately, just mementos, but still very telling and very touching (one invitation she accepted just before her wedding was labled "My last party as Miss Roberts").

No one else in the family wanted them. I can't understand why. We weren't that close to her (doubtless due to my grandmother's reserved nature) but I was charmed by her when I met her in my 20's.

I thought of looking up her descendents to see if they wanted these treasures. But I can't shake the feeling that if they had really wanted them, they, not I, would have them now.

I also have the letters my great-grandfather (my grandmother and Leona's papa) sent to the home folks when he went on a cruise to Europe and the Middle East in 1932. I have a photograph very like this one taken of him on that trip. He's the old gent in the suit.

E. Mason Roberts, Egypt, 1932

Mark and Marianne Egan said...

To Junie!
Yes, please keep them and try to find relatives. If nothing else, and you have the time, scan them and put them in a blog for all to see. They may be of great interest to others. My own mother and sisters don't particularly care about family history, but I have found some wonderful journals and photos of great and great, great grandparents from my mother's cousins who do care about family history. I live in America and became suddenly interested in knowing how, when, and why my ancestors came to America with just a vauge notion that our family is "English and Welsh". I've found the names of the ships, journals of others who wrote about the crossings, as well as photographs taken in the 1860s prior to emigrating. I've found records of homes lived in, as well as property. It might be quite valuable and satisfying to someone.

Please be the person who saved the past for the future.

Junie said...

To Mark and Marianne, who said, "Please be the person who saved the past for the future."

What an eloquent and beautiful plea, thank you. But not to worry. These albums and letters are among my most precious possessions.

Oh, sure, it makes it nicer that these people are my blood kin. But I think attention should be paid to those who came before us even if we are unrelated to them. I have never thought that to be ordinary is to be negligible.

I only wish more people felt the way we do.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. I love looking at photographs or anything that provides a window on to someone else's life and your comments bring them to life in such a lovely way as well as sharing something of yourself.

When reading your blog I often think that you really have a knack for engaging people. I am all for keeping hold of memories, be they mine or those of others, so thank you once again for sharing your delight in discovery and your thoughts on that discovered.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Pinky - you'll be glad to know that I have a "corker" of an album lined up. I just need to brace myself for the tedium of Photoshop, before I can post the images.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steerforth, sorry, didn't mean to be gloomy. Yes, losing my brother-in-law when he was only 49 took a toll on all the family. For one thing it drove us all to the doctor to have all the check-ups etc. everyone had been putting off. And, it taught us not to take one another for granted, and to enjoy each day as it comes. There must be a better way to learn these lessons, but I guess it's good that some good came out of it all!
Canadian Chickadee

Matroskin said...

I love these photographs. When you look at old photos, it seems there weren't as many overweight people as these days. I love the clothes. And hair.

Shelley said...

Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, right?) as Aslan! Now, that gives one pause. The time of these photos is ten years past the era of my work, but that beautiful blonde woman in the billowing white slacks reminds me of photos of my lovely mother.

They're all so full of life.

Anonymous said...

These are such fun photos, and as always your great commentary brings them even more to life for us. I have to say there is truth in the idea that some families can't quite cope with old photos, etc. I have a distant cousin (we share great-great-grandparents) in America who has sent me annotated copies of old family photos going back to the 1880s, because her own children aren't interested. I've expanded my online family tree (on so that hers and mine "meet," and with her permission I'm attaching the old photos to the long-gone people in the online family tree. Then others who have some relationship to these people will be able to see what they looked like.

Kay Sexton said...

The chap with the pipe in the rowboat looks very much like the ineffable B.S. Johnson of Fiery Elephant fame. Somehow it's exactly the kind of photo of B.S. that might emerge from somebody else's album.