Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Commercial Break

It has been a rather odd few weeks. My best supplier of books went bust, a friend learned that they were in the final stage of lung cancer and my oldest son almost managed to burn the house down.

My wife says she feels as if we're in a badly-written soap opera. I know what she means, although I'm sticking to the 18th century novel theme that I mentioned in an earlier posting. Our lives are more Smollett than Eastenders, not relentlessly grim, but oscillating unpredictably between triumph and disaster.

For example, only days after my book supplier went out of business, a far bigger one got in touch and said that they would be able to supply me with whatever I needed. Then a week later, a corporate customer contacted me about supplying books. My only role in both events was to say yes.

Sadly, I don't see how there will be a change in fortunes for the friend with cancer.

20 years ago, she was living in Los Angeles. Her father was a Hollywood screenwriter, her sister was married to a movie star and our friend worked for a film studio. She seemed to have a gilded life. But then the biological clock began to ring and she convinced herself that a man she met at a party was 'the one'.

She became pregnant and looked forward to a new life with her husband and child, but two things happened. First, she quickly realised that the father was not husband material (or even father material). Second, the baby turned out to be babies.

For some reason, she decided to raise the children in her native England and found a house in Lewes. As a single mother of twins in a new town, life must have been hard enough, but it would become even more challenging when it emerged that one of her boys was severely autistic.

I've no doubt that smoking played its role in the lung cancer, but I also think that she was run into the ground by a life that was unremittingly hard. Her autistic son never sleeps for more than a couple of hours at a time, so neither does she. Sometimes he hits her. She looks frail and worn out.

When I drove her home from the hospital, I tried to think of something to say. I thought of all the people I knew who had survived cancer. But I also knew that whatever I said, it would sound like a hollow platitude. In the end, all my wife and I could offer was practical help: homemade soups, lifts and visits.

This year has made me feel jittery. I think most of us like to believe that we have a certain degree of control over our lives, but during the last 11 months, most of the evidence has been to the contrary. I notice that I have become obsessed with certain household chores, as if the chaos of the external world can be counterbalanced by the order of the internal.

Perhaps that's why some people in Russia and East Germany have expressed their nostalgia for the days of communism, when people could feel reasonably confident that nothing would ever change.

Take this old Soviet commercial, for example:

There's no existential nonsense about lifestyle or aspirations of auditory perfection. It's a radio. It's got a volume/on-off button and a tuning dial. You can be certain that it will be slightly crap and that you'll have to wait for two years before yours is delievered from the Novgorod People's Transistor Radio Combine.

I wonder if the Soviets included batteries?

In the next commercial, the announcer is saying "Can you guess which one of these men is a Zionist enemy of the people?"

It's a little menacing.

The next commercial is jollier, but notice that the man has to try twice to shut the door of the car, and the numberplate is wonky:

In the next commercial the message is clear: if you want to eat a decent meal, you need to be a magician:

The final clip has some groovy music and features a couple on their journey to nuptial bliss:

It's a pity they'll have to share their flat with another family. The whole business of flat-sharing was, perhaps, the single biggest failure of the Soviet Union. In a country with such a low population density, why was it impossible for the communist authorities to provide every family with a home of their own?

But perhaps that will be London in a few years, unless someone stops people treating the city's property as an investment opportunity. Apparently, 75% of all house sales in inner London go to foreigners (and by foreigners, I mean people who live outside the UK, rather than the ones that have moved here) who want a good property portfolio. It's utter madness.

It's interesting how the two extremes of a completely planned economy and a totally free market end up producing the same results. That's why I'm always suspicious of people on both the right and left who pursue ideologies at the expense of common sense.

I apologise for being so serious in this post. Let's have another commercial break:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


When I listed this 1950s design book, over 18 months ago, I was sure that it would be snapped up within days.

I was wrong. I had to wait until yesterday to find a buyer. I'm very glad that this book has found a new home, as I rescued it from a skip a couple of years ago. I can happily bin a 13th impression of Rogue Herries, but this rare title was too good to throw away.

These scans - mostly of exhibition stands - don't do justice to the originals, but I think that they convey something of the cautious optimism of a battleworn Britain:

BOAC and BEA eventually became BA, or British Airways. I've no idea why.

This is a stunning exhibition stand that has aged far better than the products it is promoting. By the time I was born, televisions were far more modern-looking, but still seemed to break down on a regular basis. My parents knew all of the DER repairmen by name.

The brand name 'English Electric' sounds rather incongruous, but between 1918 and 1968, they were one of the most successful British companies of their kind.

In a recent poll on a Facebook group I belong to, the launch of ITV was the most popular answer to the question: "Which single event heralded the beginning of the decline of Britain?" The shock of having commercial breaks was more than some could bear and I knew children who weren't allowed to watch ITV.

They missed some good programmes.

I usually associate electric bar fires with the bedsits of 'angry young men' in films like Room at the Top. The image of a frustrated, duffle-coated Colin Wilson fan feeding his last half crown into the meter doesn't quite fit with the glamour of this display.

This showroom promises a brighter future, but the reality was postwar rationing and austerity in a country that had been almost bankrupted by the Second World War:

The book is now in the post. I hope my customer enjoys reading it as much as I have.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why the Berlin Wall Fell

Stalin must have been turning in his grave when these adverts were shown on Soviet television, shamelessly promoting petit bourgeois values:

I'm not quite sure what the first commercial is advertising. Revolving chandeliers? Flashing disco light switches? It's never made clear.

The three men in the second advert look as if they've been given the afternoon off from KGB headquarters and exude an atmosphere of silent menace.

The final commercial is for a 'mini-stereo'. It has two headphone sockets, as the authorities probably allocated one for every two people. I hope they had the same taste in music.

Everything in the three overlong commercials, from the tinny electronic music to the fashions and hairstyles, is a watered-down version of what was happening in the West.

25 years on, everything has changed. I wonder what the gentlemen of the Politburo would have made of this 2012 advert:

Valentina Tereshkova would probably also be turning in her grave, if she wasn't still very much alive. I wonder if she yearns for the good old days before revolving chandeliers started to undermine the edifice of socialism?