Tuesday, 28 September 2010


BBC4 had a Blackpool night recently. The place appeals to me in the same way as David Thewlis described it in the programme in which he was filmed visiting old haunts in his native Blackpool: kitsch, thrill-seeking, superficial (knowingly so and loving it), a bit like a cheap version of Hollywood or Coney Island.
      I captured these images of Sixties girls on Blackpool rollercoasters:

Blackpool has a special place in my heart at one remove, because my granny was obsessed with it and I've inherited her scrapbooks full of photos and postcards of the town.

Wow, I've just discovered from Wikipedia that Blackpool was the first town in the world to have electric street lighting. Its love of artificial light and the desire to stay in the vanguard of electrical wondrousness must have grown and grown until it became the surreal excess of the illuminations.

When we lived in Hebden Bridge, a few years ago, I'm sure I remember the (wonderful) local baker's still closing for a 'Wakes week' each year, the traditional week in each mill town when the factories would close and all the workers would head off on holiday, a huge number of them to Blackpool -- even if the weather was often awful:

In its heyday, up to seven million people a year went there for their holidays. It hadn't quite reached that zenith when this photo was taken in 1907, but the flying machine looks scarily ahead of its time.

I only ever went on holiday to Blackpool properly once, with my granny and her second husband (I wasn't allowed to call him 'grandad' as my mum disapproved of him). We weren't the sort of family who went on holiday together, so it was quite a big deal. In fact I didn't want to go at all, being a highly snobbish child and having picked up on the idea that Blackpool was somehow 'common'. But I think my mother must have asked them to take me because she was going through a rough patch with my dad and needed a bit of breathing space -- that's my theory anyway.
     This is my granny in Blackpool at about that time (maybe a tiny bit before), the late Sixties:

I must have been nine or ten. I have only patchy memories of the holiday. I remember the drive there over the Pennines from my home in the Yorkshire Dales and the first sight of the magical tower. I remember a new pair of purple Crimplene trousers. We stayed in a classic lodging house but I can't remember what our specific accommodation consisted of. Surely I must have had to have a room of my own, but that's almost unimaginable.
     I must have been a strange child to take on holiday: refusing absolutely to go on any rides, sitting reading Puffin after Puffin on the beach. Oh, I've just remembered that we went to the pictures to see the Steptoe and Son film and I was horrified and thrilled at the scene where Steptoe has a bath in the sink -- and I've just discovered that film was released in 1972, so that confirms the year. 1972, and I was ten. Oh, we also went to Louis Tussaud's Waxworks and I shuddered thrillingly at the anatomical section with its opened-up women and graphic illustrations of the ravages of syphilis -- I'm sure I read that the Yorkshire Ripper was disturbingly influenced by the same exhibits.
     In the course of our week away I became fixated on a little agate heart in the window of an antique shop near our lodgings. Yes, that's how strange a child I was. I had to have this little heart, and in the end I summoned up the courage to ask Granny if I could go into the shop and ask how much it was. I seem to remember it was rather expensive but I bought it with my holiday spends. I've still got it:

The coloured stripes are just from the scanner. It's made of 'hair agate' or possibly 'maidenhair agate', not quite sure. It's 1.25cm across. I still like it and feel it's a sort of talisman.
    My granny had a penchant for saucy seaside postcards which she collected in a big album. There were two still in this wonderful paper bag that I found recently. She'd written her name on the bag too.

I'm absolutely positive I would have deeply disapproved of those cards if I'd known she was accumulating them.

I recently found a book that belonged to my granny. It was a novel set in Blackpool about music-hall singers and actresses. She had covered it, amazingly, in a fluorescent poster for a Blackpool show and all through the book she'd stuck in bits cut from brochures about Blackpool -- pictures of donkeys, of the promenade and so on, as well as affectionate descriptions of Stanley Park and the South Shore. It's quite an extraordinary object and I've discovered that this process of adding to books has a name -- Grangerising -- named after the Rev. James Granger (1723-1776), who promoted the idea of do-it-yourself illustration and a lot of use of the gluepot. I can't lay hands on this book just now, so it will have to wait for a later post. Finding out that there was a word for what she did made me ridiculously happy.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Plastic people

After the miniature postcard people in the last post, I'm turning my attention to another set of figures -- tiny plastic personages.

Green around the gills ... this sailor is 1cm high
Over the years I've collected quite a lot of little coloured figurines, mainly from crackers. Blue seems to be the most popular colour:

The largest of these -- the elf drummer on the left -- is 4cm high. The smallest are about 1cm high.

I love the sporty cats:

What completely blows my mind about all these figures is the process involved in making them. People presumably went to art or technical college, learned design skills and also about the manufacturing methods. Then they got jobs in designing these characters, moulds had to be made, colours chosen, production lines set up with machines turning out thousands of each, and yet they are utterly pointless and inconsequential. They exist in the world more or less meaninglessly, functionlessly, but they are made nonetheless. And made with detail, with humour, with tenderness.

lovely shades of green

The baby is 1cm high with a little pot belly and a solemn expression:

I feel that, by loving these creatures with their roughly extruded bodies, their leaked flaps of extraneous plastic flesh, I've given a little bit of meaning to the process of making them, which, otherwise, would somehow exemplify the monstrous excess of the global economic system.
That sounds silly, and of course it's meant to, but I still kind of mean it.

I'll be your dog (1.5cm high)

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Postcard people

One of my favourite games is finding 'hidden' people in old postcards, like the chap above, who must just have been minding his own business by the pool when this postcard photo was taken in Portugal in the Sixties:

I like to imagine the moment when the shutter clicked -- all those people on holiday, having fun, unaware (almost certainly) that they were being captured on film and that their images would be sold in due course.
     Here are some more 'incidental' characters from postcards:

It would make me really happy to think that I had stumbled on some private drama going on while the photographer snapped people unawares -- just like Blow-up!

Perhaps the child in that first image is lost, or the couple two along are meeting to plot a murder? Probably not.

Is that a ball game on the prom in the first picture, or a disturbing confrontation? Are those two ladies tussling over the picnic basket? I love the two girls with their lilo.

When you scan at 2400 times the size of the original, to ferret out these tiny figures, you get the dot pattern of the litho process in all its glory, which I also really like. I like it when the image pretty much breaks down altogether into fragments of colour, as in the first pic at the top.
     Here are some of the cards these people were discovered in:

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Hands on

An odd collection of arms and hands
This is a photo of some of the arms and hands I've collected. I haven't tried very hard to find them; they seem to have found me. I do like them very much, mostly because they seem to have symbolic meaning beyond their actual plastic or china reality. I'd like to do more with them. I made this jewelry box:

the wonder of spray paint
The hand has a long history as a symbol, figuring in many cultures as a lucky talisman and, I discover, having strong links to ancient fertility cults. The site I just linked to, www.luckymojo.com, is the most extraordinary, sprawling site, with information about every conceivable lucky charm and more, and is the almost-singlehanded work of Catherine Yronwode, whose life story is one of the most interesting I've ever read.

letter-holder -- touching
The hand stands metonymically for the whole person. I wish I had the nerve to use the word 'synecdoche' here as that means a part standing for a whole, but I just don't know how to put it into a sentence properly. Not only does the hand stand for the person, but it's a particularly significant part, the part that touches, holds, connects:

sparks fly
Hands ward off the evil eye -- it's almost intuitive in the way we hold up a hand to say 'stop'.

Browsing on LuckyMojo.com has made me want to buy tons of milagros and other charms. I already have a Mexican cross studded with milagros, including several hands:

I don't have any kind of faith, but I enjoy the idea that people have invested power in objects and body parts.

I do have two personal lucky charms which are my 'lucky stones'. I found these as a child and have kept them safe ever since. They're naturally shiny, not polished. I've photographed them on my computer to give an idea of size.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Broken pieces

This post was entirely inspired by MenopausalMusing's latest post.

If I see a bit of broken pottery on the ground, I nearly always pick it up (well, if it's got a pattern on it). There are a lot of things I pick up off the ground -- bits of broken brake-light reflectors, coins, shiny things, dropped photos. My kids call me Pick-up Polly. But broken pottery is one of the things I love best.

On holiday in Fowey I saw shards of pottery stuck in the pavement -- I don't know whether this was accidental or deliberate:

You can just make out a person on horseback.

A piece of broken pottery is a sign of an earlier existence. Sometimes you can find places that have rich pickings, on the sites of old rubbish dumps or where a house once stood. In the Potteries there were so many shards of pottery lying around that people collected them to decorate objects. I adore these.

Here's a ginger jar -- spot the little imp face peeping out:

This old barrel has all sorts of stuff embedded in it, including horseshoes and embellished gilt -- an old brooch?

My great aunt Winnie (of whom more in a future post) had a wonderful pottery-shard table. It stood in her porch and her cat used to sleep on it all day. I had wonderful memories of it from holidays at her house in the Fens and one day I said to my mum that, if a suitable moment ever arose, at some future time, she could perhaps tell aunt Win how much I loved the table and suggest she might possibly leave it to me to remember her by. I thought I was being rather rude to even suggest this, but, my family being the way they are, word soon came back that I could 'have it for £50'. So I bought the table and now I consider it my heirloom anyway:

I should have taken a photo of it sideways on as well. It's made of very solid, dark wood and we use it to put our bedroom bits and pieces on.

I can't get enough of the pottery mosaic objects although they're hard to find (even harder down south where we now live). This is our umbrella stand, a hefty drainpipe:

A jug:

I think the makers of these old objects would paint the grout, possibly a gold-ish colour. Modern attempts at pottery-shard mosaic can look much more raw. This was my rather clumsy first attempt, a mirror:

Emma Biggs made a huge mosaic from medieval shards dug up in York -- the piece was part of an installation in St Marys church in York in 2009, done with her partner Matthew Collings, the art critic. I very much enjoy his art criticism, specially on television -- irreverent and yet incisive. I found this 'interview with Satan' by Matthew Collings on the Saatchi site, about the installation.

When I hold a scrap of broken china, I feel connected to the people who used the object when it was whole. I love the detritus of ordinary lives past, just beneath our feet.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Swedish fantasy

Ever since I discovered the Swedish Wallander series on BBC4 I've been getting keener and keener on Sweden. Then there was the Stieg Larsson trilogy and the great film adaptations made by the same Swedish production company that make Wallander. The Swedish settings of all this crime just looked so beautiful. I started learning Swedish in my car on the way to work ("Så gå vi på berg-och dalbana") and planning the perfect holiday in Sweden.

Idyllic flowery Sweden
      We were planning to go this summer, but just around the time when we were thinking of booking, the Icelandic volcano put it all in doubt. Being a naturally cautious person, I believed reports that said the volcano might go on spewing out ash for up to two years. We took the ferry to France instead. Hopefully it'll be Lund, Malmo and Skane next summer, and then maybe Stockholm the year after.

Glowing Stockholm

     But my obsession with Sweden needs feeding, so I've taken to watching the country via its live webcams. This provokes a very conflicted response in me. On the one hand the idea of peering into another country in real time really appeals to me. On the other hand, taken together, Sweden's webcams don't seem to capture the beauty of Sweden, managing, somehow, to make the country look like it toils under the fag-end of Communism. Here's a selection of screenshots from live Swedish webcams this morning:

You won't be able to make out much detail, but you'll get the overall idea: empty car parks, deserted squares, grey playing fields. This doesn't square with my idea of Sweden but it's still kind of addictive. This is my favourite webcam:

Byske Havsbad near Skelleftea in Northern Sweden
The tide comes in and goes out; sometimes kids come and bounce on the trampolines in the middle distance or climb on the pirate ship. I've never seen anyone playing crazy golf. But this webcam has been frozen since August 28th so the wind no longer ruffles the bushes, no one bounces any more. I miss it. In fact I wass missing it so much that I emailed Skelleftea Kommun to ask them if they could possibly mend it. I was so pleased to get a reply:

And then another one, from Roger at the Leisure Centre this time:

It's such fun! But, alas, the webcam is still broken. I check every day to see whether the live picture is back.
I still need my Sweden fix. My latest idea is to 'drive' round Sweden on Google Maps. This, admittedly, is a little bit tragic. I imagine I've flown to Copenhagen and have hired a car. I drive across the Oresund Bridge and into Southern Sweden:

I spot Olafur Eliasson's 'Movement Meter for Lernacken' up on the hill to the right of the road:

I recently found an article by Eliasson that really brings his art to life for me. I had never really 'got it' before. This tower works as a meter because it changes colour according to how far away from it you are.
     Anyway, the journey continues:

I reach Malmo and go to see the Turning Torso. It's kind of cool, but the truth is that 'travelling' in this way actually makes me feel travel sick. If you keep clicking on the arrows in Google Street View, you lurch forward along the markers, but it only takes a couple of minutes of that for me to feel completely nauseous.
So Sweden will have to wait for next year.