Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Postcard from 1977

Yesterday, I found this postcard. It looks as if it's addressed to someone called called 'Mandy Smell', but I think that's just the handwriting:


having a smashin' time, weather not too good though. Plenty of fellas, but Wayne is the star attraction so far. lots of entertainment every where and me and Eun will probably go in for Miss Blue Waters.Warners is next door so we gate crash that as well.

See ya soon

Natalie and Eunice xxxxxx

I wonder if Natalie or 'Eun' won Miss Blue Waters. I can see them now, gyrating to the top hits of 1977 - Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, So You Win Again and I Feel Love - hoping that Wayne will notice them. 

Did the evening end in a 'slowie', to Rod Stuart's I Don't Want to Talk About It? We'll never know,

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Walking the South Downs Way

A few posts ago, I mentioned the fact that I once walked the 100-mile South Downs Way, from Winchester to Eastbourne. Today I found some photos of the walk, taken back in the Age of Kodak. I don't think they're wonderful pictures, but they do serve as a reminder that even in one of the most densely-populated parts of Europe, there are still plenty of empty spaces.

A large part of the route follows prehistoric tracks and if I wanted to give a truly accurate impression of the journey, I'd probably post a succession of photos showing paths going up and down hills.

But it's what you see on the way that makes the journey worth making: a Saxon church, a stately home, a slow worm, a disused railway line, a memorial to a Luftwaffe pilot whose plane crashed nearby, a field of poppies, a Roman road, a dragonfly hunting for prey, a dew pond, an Iron Age hill fort, a pair of windmills and a weasel.

The South Downs Way begins in a dreary field, just on the outskirts of Winchester. It ends by the sea, in the spectacular setting of Beachy Head - the highest point on the south coast of England.

I have resisted the temptation to 'improve' these 35mm film pictures with any Photoshop trickery. As much as I like digital photography, there's something magical about Kodakcolor:



For more information about the route, click here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Land of Lost Content

Another day spent consigning worthless books to oblivion. I'm probably destroying more books than Hitler, but at least I'm not burning them. I did try when I bought my woodburning stove, last year, but they make a terrible mess. What a shame - it could have really cut the heating bills.

Today I had to throw away a box of annuals, but I kept some of the illustrations so that they could be scanned and float aound in Google Images for posterity.  I used to innocently give the jpegs names like 'schoolgirls01', but discovered that I was attracting the wrong sort of traffic.

Here are some of my favourites:

"I say, hurrah for Blenkinsop! He's beaten Carstairs Minor's record!" 

Carstairs Minor set the school record in June 1916, shortly before he went off to the trenches. Little do they know that Blenkinsop has been trying a new drug called a 'steroid' that his Uncle Dick bought back from a business trip in America.

The wholesome, outdoor theme continues, although the boy in the front appears to be in the grip of a psychotic episode. His companion looks slightly nervous:

"Er, Billy? I'm getting awfully wet back here..."

But not all of the characters were good eggs:

That Cad Cardew is playing merry hell with the school notice board. Who knows what chaos will ensue?

This is one of several short stories, with titles like:







I wonder how many boys actually read these short stories? I can't imagine ever making the effort - I always preferred comic strips - but perhaps children were more receptive in the pre-television age.

It's either that, or simply that the grown-ups refused to pander to the tastes of their young readers. I suspect the latter, as I can't imagine that a lengthy article on iron smelting would have ever been that interesting to an eleven-year-old boy.

On the other hand, I can imagine being captivated by pictures like these:

This illustration of the night-mail arriving from some far-flung corner of the globe evokes an exciting world of romance and adventure - a stark contrast to the average boy's drab existence of school, church on Sundays and visiting relations. The illusion is slightly shattered by the fact that the plane's arriving at Croydon aerodrome, but never mind.

(On a serious note, this picture reminds me of one of my favourite books, which I'd strongly recommend to anyone who hasn't read it: Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Other illustrations also depict exotic locations, populated by hostile natives and enemy agents:

 But perhaps the ultimate schoolboy hero was the fighter pilot:


A few years ago, I met an old man who did exactly this - he even had the photos to prove it. He said that firing the bombs was relatively easy, but taking decent pictures of the explosions was a nightmare. 

I also found some girls annuals, which weren't quite as exciting as these ones that I found a couple of months ago . This girl doesn't look as if she'd be terribly keen on a game of lacrosse:

As for these young flappers, they seem to be having a rather wild party:

Thank goodness the object's a fake beard. The game could have been very embarrassing for 'Uncle' George, who is looking nervously on in the background.

The next picture neatly sums up everything that has gone wrong with British society since the Lady Chatterley trial:

See what I mean? In those days even the burglars wore ties. People had standards.

By 1968, when the next annual was published, it was all going to pot - metaphorically and literally. The only girls left in the Guides movement were those who hadn't succumbed to the allure of youth culture. Here they are in a field, somewhere in England on an overcast day, studying for their cooking and washing-up badges:

The girl in the centre - I'll call her Ginny - seems to be enjoying herself, but the other two girls look as if they'd rather be listening to the Rolling Stones, with some boys. Luckily, Ginny doesn't seem to have noticed:

Those white socks seem a little impractical for a muddy field, but I suppose they make the girls easier to spot in the dark.

Looking at these annuals, I feel both a sense of nostalgia for what seems like a more innocent age and, mostly, a huge relief that I don't have to live in it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


This morning I felt as if I was in an M.R. James story: alone on a misty country lane, listening to the sound of horses hooves that seemed to approach, but never arrived. I don't believe in ghosts, but fog has a curious ability to induce feelings of paranoia. When the visible world is reduced to a radius of 20 yards, the sounds that come from beyond its limits can seem vaguely threatening.

I don't think that working on my own suits me. I'd always thought it would, but I spent this morning alone in my cowshed, picking the book orders for tomorrow's collection and found myself going over past injustices, broken friendships and unresolved conflicts. I've no idea why.

David Sylvian wrote a very good song about it.

Yesterday was more my cup of tea, with a return visit to the wonderful Light Show at the Hayward Gallery:

I was there two weeks ago and was so impressed, I decided to buy tickets for my wife and youngest son. Taking a seven-year-old to an art gallery is always a gamble, but I thought that the Light Show would be a safe bet and I was right. My son loved it.

We should have quit while we were ahead, but my wife had heard that there was a free performance of Poulenc's Story of Babar the Elephant, next door, in the Royal Festival Hall:

Poulenc's sub-Stravinskian score lacks the big tunes that make Peter and the Wolf so successful, but the players and two narrators performed with gusto. Sadly, they were no competition for several hundred under-fives with a short attention span and we struggled to hear the music above the din of screaming children and mothers shouting "Lily! Please stop hitting the man."

As I was the man that Lily was hitting, I was quite keen to leave.

We walked back to Waterloo Station via the South Bank. Even in February, the area was packed with street entertainers and the queue for the London Eye seemed longer than ever. In an archway, a man was lying on the ground singing " Lahhhhhdan...tahhhhhn..." and I realised that his was the first genuine London accent I'd heard all day. It would be rather poignant if the only real Londoner I saw was a homeless man.

The journey home took longer than usual, as someone had decided to throw themselves on the railway line at Shoreham. Instead of the usual euphemistic descriptions of a 'passenger action' or 'incident', we were baldly told that someone had "committed suicide at Shoreham". My son looked horrified.

On the way home, both my wife and I agreed that being in London was invigorating. We had got into a rut since our oldest son became ill, last year, avoiding any journeys outside Lewes because our absence exacerbated his anxiety.

It had seemed liked the right thing at the time. However, when I found myself working in a remote cowshed, surrounding by hostile dogs and limbless humans, I knew that I'd only stay sane if I had a little more fun at the weekends.

When the landscape looks like this and the first thing I see on leaving work is a sheep's carcass that looks as if it's been stripped by zombies, it's time to buy a ticket to London Victoria.

Fortunately, I won't be working alone for much longer. The two postgraduates who worked with me last year will be back next week, so I won't be as susceptible to to the ghosts.

I'll end as I began, with M.R. James. Do you believe in ghosts?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Far From the Madding Crowd

Some years ago I was given the opportunity to open a new bookshop in the Science Museum. I knew very little about science, but managed to bluff my way through it and the shop seemed to do very well. There were a few little niggles, like the time I wasn't allowed in the stock room because the area was being decontaminated for radiation; but on the whole I enjoyed myself.

I even liked my commute to South Kensington on the District Line, which was a refreshing change from crawling along the M25 at rush hour. I could tell that my fellow passengers were irritated by the wailing Gypsy beggars who occasionally appeared, or the young South African men who used to leap into the carriage with a guitar and shout "Hi guys...Today, is gonna be the day when they're gonna give it back to you...", but I wasn't bothered. It still beat looking at a sign saying QUEUE AT JCT 8.

However, there was one aspect of the Science Museum that started to really get to me: the lack of daylight.

After spending hours in an air conditioned, windowless hall, I became increasingly disorientated. Was it light or dark outside? What was the weather like? Which season were we in? At first I just found it strange, then I began to sense a creeping depression. What could I do to shake myself out of it?

I don't know how the idea came to me, but one day I decided to walk the South Downs Way on my days off. Not all at once - it's 100 miles long - but in 10 to 25-mile sections, depending on where the nearest railway station was. I began in Winchester and, over the course of five months, walked to Eastbourne.

It was a wonderful experience in so many ways and, as I walked along the Downs above a town called Lewes, I remember thinking how lucky the locals were to have this countryside on their doorstep. If I lived here, I'd be up on the Downs every weekend.

Two years later I was living in Lewes, but was I up on the Downs every weekend? Of course not. Instead I was going up to London, making the most of my Tate Gallery membership, or seeing friends for drinks.

However, one of my resolutions for 2013 is to take more long walks, so this afternoon I took a train to Glynde and walked back to Lewes along the Downs. This may not be the most spectacular countryside in the world, but it works in mysterious ways. I didn't meet a single soul for the entire walk and the isolation was liberating:

The first part of the walk was awful: a steep climb from Glynde village that made me realise how out of condition I was. At one point I imagined that there was a pain in my chest and I started to think of the various news reports about men of my age - outwardly healthy - who suddenly keel over and die from a heart attack. Who would find me here?

But then I reminded myself that the first part of any walk on the South Downs began like this, as the muscles demanded extra oxygen and body took a while to adjust. I wasn't dying.

At the top of the Downs, the wind was unforgiving and my cheeks felt scoured by the cold. No wonder it had taken the snow so long to melt on the hills. But it's a continental climate here. In the summer, it can be oppressively hot, with no trees to provide any shade.

The physical exertion gradually induced a sense of deep relaxation that was compounded by the silence and isolation. It would probably be trite to say that the journey was mental as well as physical, but the bleakness and emptiness of my surroundings had a profound effect.

Eventually, Lewes appeared in the distance, like Bunyan's Celestial City:

The path took a turn a made a steep descent. As I walked down, I saw a group of geriatric hikers slowly advancing up the hill and felt both admiration and hope. Someone once suggested that I join a walking group, but I told them that they'd missed the point. It was the isolation that attracted me.

However, I suppose there's safety in numbers when you're over a certain age.

Entering a world of noise, people and things felt strange. Here were thousands of people, all neatly contained in this space of narrow streets and cramped little houses, while less than a mile away, there was a vast, empty wilderness.

 I shall be returning to Glynde at the earliest opportunity.