Thursday, April 17, 2014

Nuns, Nudes and Nomads

At my old storage unit, I used to be able to gauge what time of the year it was by the volume of mud, flies and excrement. I became resigned to the mud,  gradually accepting that washing my car was a completely futile task. But I never got used to the flies.

For some reason, my car was a fly-magnet and on some days I counted over 50, before giving up in despair. Whenever I opened the car door, several flies would sneak inside and hide, waiting until I'd reached a critical speed on the journey home. I nearly crashed on several occasions, trying to steer with one hand and swat with the other.

My new premises appear to be fly and mud-free. Also, I can now watch the seasons change. This is how the view has altered during the last few weeks:

I'm looking forward to having my lunch breaks by the lake.

During today's trip to work, I found a collection of the Photography Year Book from the late 1950s and early 60s.

As a schoolboy I used to avidly pour through copies of these at the local library (mainly because they contained photographs of naked ladies), but hadn't looked at one for years. I'd forgotten how each collection had the same recurring subjects.

Here are a few of those themes:

1. The Still Life:

I didn't like them when I was 13. I'm not that keen now, although I've learned that if I'm with people in a gallery, I must say something positive about the "form" and "composition" rather than risk exposing myself as a complete philistine. "I like the interplay between the horizontal and verticle leaves..."

2. The Very Wrinkled Old Person:

There was a time when no widow in an Italian hill town could safely go to confession without being assailed by a photographer, who would then bundle her into a pensione and take a series of unflattering portraits. As much as I like the lined face and knowing eyes, it has become something of a cliché.

3. The Naked Lady Landscape Shot:

Yes, it's a nude woman. But she's imitating a natural feature on a beach or in a national park and she's not wearing saucy underwear, so this is a serious photograph. Isn't it?

4. The Special Effects Study:

They say "I achieved this effect by using a 200mm lense at f/5 and a halogen flash at a shutter speed of 1/4..." and all I can think is, was it worth it? Trees at night-time.

5. Some People in a Third World Country:
These pictures were a doddle, once you'd convinced the subjects that the camera wasn't stealing their souls.

The people would either be naked or wearing outlandish clothing, so a successful photograph was almost guaranteed. These days, you'll have to ask the subjects to removed their Nike t-shirts for a few minutes.

6. A Picture of an Animal:

You may say that it's just a picture of a sparrow in the grass, but apparently it's good enough to be published.

Perhaps sparrows are hard to photograph.

8. A Photograph of Anything, As Long As It Features a Nun:

Beyond the usual themes of nuns, nudity, abstract compositions and old people I found a few pictures that I really liked. Here is a small selection:

Nurses praying? I'm very relieved that none of my nurses had to turn to prayer when I was in hospital a couple of months ago.

I enjoyed looking at the work of so many gifted photographers, but what struck me most was how commonplace the exotic images of Chinese peasants, African tribeswomen and Arab nomads appeared, while the once mundane pictures of British miners and city gents in bowler hats seemed extraordinary. How times have changed.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Miss Perkins, Bulgarians, Town Planning and the Blitz

Winter was awful. I was ill for the best part of three months and consumned more antibiotics than a supermarket chicken. But I've been gradually recovering during the last few weeks and have worked like the clappers to make up for lost time. It seems to be paying off.

I've been working through a delivery of books that has an enjoyably ecclectic range of titles. Here are a few that caught my eye:

I'm a big fan of the coloured frontispieces in old children's novels. Often they are the only illustration in the book and have to entice a potential reader with a scene of mild peril.

Girls tend to be standing outside a study, waiting to be upbraided, whilst boys can usually been seen hiding from an assailant, who is either an angry master, foreign agent or beligerent farm labourer.

The caption for the above picture is "Miss Perkins looked straight at the girls". It would be a Miss Perkins.

But it was a very different age, as this book below reminds us:

I Googled this book title and ended up with some pictures of a number of very healthy looking young men with George Michael beards.  They all looked very cheerful and for a brief moment, I wondered if I would have been a happier person if I was a gay Bulgarian.

I'll never know.

The next book that appealed is this 1960s educational title:

The book purports to give an unbiased overview of the development of towns and cities, but 50 years on, it seems ridiculously prejudiced. Like many other books and television programmes of the time, it has a blind faith in planning and modernism as the saviours of mankind. For example, the illustration below has this caption:

"A modern town does not grow up accidentally. It is carefully planned so that we can enjoy living in it."

The reality, of course, is quite different. Most people prefer living in a town that has evolved slowly over time, in response to people's needs, rather than the soulless creation of priggish idealogues, avaricious businessmen and corrupt councillors. The text claims that these concrete buildings "are pleasant to look at." Really?

The most striking book I found today was a collection of photographs from the Second World War. Apparently, this picture of blind children in a shelter during an air raid was voted the favourite war photo by readers of an American magazine in 1943.

I'm not surprised. It is a powerful image that still shocks and upsets:

The photo below is also very moving. This was taken after an air raid in Sussex, during which 20 children were killed at a school:

"And finally..."

Like the news, it's usually best to end on a lighter note, so I'll finish with this nice juxtaposition of a theatre poster and a bombed-out building:

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


My oldest son's favourite new word is hypocrite and it's usually levelled at me. Most of the time he's confusing flexibility with double standards, but sometimes he's spot on. I was a complete hypocrite last week, when I took my sons to a 'drive-thru' McDonalds, after years of condemning the company's food and working practices, but I knew that they'd love it.

On the way back to Lewes, my younger son said that he felt sick and I pulled over into a side road,  where we found ourselves next to a church in a small hamlet.

There are quite a few churches in England that sit in isolated places and don't appear to serve any community. Some villages never recovered from the Black Death, whilst others simply withered over time.

We got out and walked around, hoping that fresh air would help my son. On a nearby tree, we found this:

It reminded me of the film The Longest Day. I've no idea why the teddy bear was caught in a tree.

The church, surrounded by daffodils, recalled the rural idyll that appeared on my parents' 'This England' calendars. But as we approached the church, we found something rather unpleasant:

Once we were back in Lewes, I began sifting through boxes of secondhand books. I rarely find old photographs since I became self-employed, so I was delighted when I found these:

As usual, there were no names or dates. It's frustrating, but also tantalising.

The same pile of books also yielded this early colour plate from a 'penny dreadful' published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. The SPCK must have published thousands of novels for younger readers, as I always find several a day. Like Mills and Boon romance novels, they follow a strict template and I've noticed that temperance is a recurring theme.

Alcoholism appears to have been a big issue in the 1880s and 90s. My great-grandfathers on my mother's side were both late Victorian drunkards, with numerous illegitimate children. My mother remembers her long-suffering grandmother saying "When 'ee dies, I want to 'ave three years to meself."

Her wish came true. The husband died in the early 1940s and my great-grandmother was determined to have her three years: "Hitler's not gonna get me. I'm 'aving me time." She survived many air raids and died just over three years to the day after her husband's death.

The culture of self-improvement and temperance appears to have had a strong influence on the following generation, as my mother's parents (and many of their peers) were strict teetotalers.

In the history of our family, I see myself as a Charles II figure, restoring the traditional merry-making after a period of austere puritanism. But without the illegitimate children and gambling.

The following day, I worked through another collection of books and found this touching note, written by a young girl:

"I am going to save up for a 1/2d light colourd lipstick and a small box of Ponds Powder if mummy will let me, a small scotch red purse for my red handbag and the Penguins Club badge before it starts again."

I hope that I'll find more notes and photographs in books. but failing that, I can look in other places, like this wall in Ilfracombe:

I'll take their word for it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Scientific Method

My train from Victoria to Lewes broke down at Haywards Heath this afternoon. After 15 minutes of failed attempts, we were warned of "special procedures" that would cause the lights and doors to stop working for a few seconds.

Reading between the lines, I realised that they were doing what the rest of us do when something doesn't work. They turned the train off, counted to five and turned it on again. It worked.

Once the train had rebooted, the doors hissed open and allowed the remaining people on the platform to get on. One of them was a rather plain, overweight woman in her late 30s. She was unremarkable in every way, apart from a fully tattooed face, a bright yellow bobble hat and a Modrianesque poncho.

Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.

I was returning from a trip to the Science Museum with my younger son, who wanted to learn about materials and pollution. We looked at several exhibits that showed how many things come from oil, including airfix kits and bath tubs. When I answered any questions, I made sure that there were no adults within earshot who could hear my half-baked ideas.

My older son also has an occasional interest in science. Yesterday he saw a YouTube video which claimed that if you shook a cola bottle vigorously, then put it in the freezer for three hours and 15 minutes, you would have fizzy iced cola. Three hours and 30 minutes later, I heard a voice shout "Dad! Dad!"

I had no idea that an exploding bottle of Coca Cola could cover such a large area. Both the floor and ceiling were soaked in cola, plus half of the walls, a computer, three chairs, a watercolour painting, a window, several books and a printer. The ceiling still bears the stains, but they add a pleasingly antique, mottled effect to the Victorian plasterwork.

After the long clean-up operation, I asked my son why he hadn't opened the bottle in the garden. I was assured that the experiment had worked perfectly in the video. Ah yes, I thought, the infallible wisdom of YouTube.

But perhaps I can employ this blind faith to my own ends. If I can write a list of all the things that annoy me (like beginning sentences with "So...") and make videos that convince today's teenagers that these practices will result in terrible consequences, I will have made up for the Coca Cola incident.

My first video will be about tattooed faces.