Sunday, 24 April 2011

The joy of long weekends

I'm really settling in to this lovely long weekend -- and there's still another day of it to come. I'm long past the must-do stage, past the might-as-well-do stage as well and am bedding down into the why-not-try level.
So I've done a little doodle to experiment with sealing things onto paper with gel medium. Everyone else in the immediate family has reacted with exaggerated horror at my picking up feathers on our walk today, as if I was going to be bringing bubonic plague into the house. I've always picked up feathers and don't think of them as particularly dirty or bacteria-laden -- perhaps they know otherwise.
     For our walk we went to the Sundon Hills, which for somewhere so close to Luton is absolutely gorgeous (nothing against Luton, but you know what I mean -- it's surprisingly unspoilt). This field was absolutely full of cowslips and clumps of speedwell. If anyone from my area (some of my Postman's Knock friends) should have happened to see a hunched hobbling figure this afternoon, it could well have been me, as the walk found all my weak places (legion) and nobbled them. I was rather pathetic and only got through the last third or so by imagining I was on one of those Red Nose Day celebrity challenges across the Kalahari or some such ("Fearne Cotton is plodding up behind me, Gary Barlow is just up ahead...").

Friday, 22 April 2011

Egg hunt

Eggs ready to be hidden

Two sets of clues waiting to be written
Let the hunt begin!

Thursday, 21 April 2011


I've been reading a copy of Housewife magazine from August 1950. My copy has no cover, sadly, but above is the cover of the September 1950 issue. It's a magazine I found at my mum's, which no doubt once belonged to her mum (the book alterer) and is full of cheerful 'modern' articles for young mothers coping with the tail end of rationing such as 'Need they quarrel?' and 'Furnishing an Alcove'. The cookery pages have nine 'ways with gelatine', which is about eight too many, in my view.

     In my search for amusing apercus about this magazine, I have discovered Lady Moira Combe, wife of Sir Ralph Combe and, as such, probably not short of a bob or two. She seems not to have been able to resist the lure of the celebrity endorsement as she appears in this issue of Housewife telling us her 'tea-time rule', which is serving Meredith & Drew biscuits. The ad copy tells us a little about Lady Moira: 'Her hobby needs only minutes. Since childhood she has collected elephants of all sorts and sizes from tiny ones, little as a lipstick, to mammoths over two feet high!' There is some sort of odd subtext going on here, I'll warrant...
     I went searching online for Lady Moira's elephants (to no avail) which is when I discovered that she was quite the Carol Vorderman of her day when it came to endorsements. As well as M&D biscuits, she also signed up for Californian Poppy perfume and Silvo polish. I wonder how much she was paid?
Here she is from an earlier era on the cover of Country Life with her daughter Estelle.
Also amusing me in Housewife are not one but two adverts for lotions to put on your toddler's hair to make it go curly. Curly Top is 'guaranteed harmless', but how did it work if it was not a kind of crude perm lotion? "My little girl is now 10 months old and her hair, which I quite thought would be absolutely straight, is now a mass of lovely curls, thanks to CURLY TOP."
I guess the appeal of Curly Top herself, Shirley Temple, was still strong in 1950.
     The final thing to catch my eye in Housewife was this ad for Spirella's corsetry service. The Spirella factory was -- is -- just up the road from here in Letchworth, and it's a wonderful building:
Last weekend I found a copy of their in-house magazine, Threads, on a charity stall in Hitchin market. It's the October 1961 issue, but the corsetry fittings are still going strong and by this time the company were being very proactive, going into women's workplaces to demonstrate "the importance of well-fitting foundations for the working woman". Here they are in a Leicester factory ("Machines were stopped half an hour earlier at lunchtime for the women to see, of all things, a demonstration of Spirella service")  where the wonderfully named Mrs Dewsnap takes a no-nonsense approach to bosoms:
Mrs Dewsnap demonstrates the importance of not being able to bend at your workstation
Elsewhere in the magazine there is news of Spirella births ("Baby Susan took her parents by surprise when she arrived nine days early"), deaths ("The death of Miss Eva Jones (Corset Assembly) came as a shock...on holiday on the Isle of Wight...") and marriages ("Dorothy Dellar (formerly Corset Assembly) became Mrs Hankin on September 9"). I was gripped by the story of Miss E Bristow, "a well-known figure in the Garment Service Department", who retires at the end of October. "Singing is one of Miss Bristow's great interests... With a little more encouragement from her family Miss Bristow might have tried singing as a career... She sang over the public address system at Spirella one Christmas some years ago...."
Miss E. Bristow -- lost to the world of showbiz

Monday, 18 April 2011

Grangerised book

If you've been dropping in to my blog since I started it last September, you might possibly remember a post I did about Blackpool or, more specifically, my granny's love of Blackpool.
     In that post, I mentioned a book that she had 'grangerised', that is decorated with pictures and so on. At the time, I couldn't lay hands on it, but I found it last night. I think it's wonderful. It's a novel called Leading Lady set in the glamorous world of Blackpool theatre. It's just a fusty novel published in 1947, but I think Granny must have bought it secondhand in about 1973 as all the pictures she's stuck in it date from the Seventies and there's a clipping from the Daily Mail of August 16 1973 about Blackpool's Grand Theatre being saved from re-development.
     Granny made a brilliant cover for the book from an eyewateringly bright poster plus a rather saucy flyer for the 'Folies Striptease' and a leaflet advertising the film of The Bible, showing at the Palladium Cinema, Blackpool (starring John Huston as Noah). This is the spine:
The novel itself is very jolly, a period piece now, full of cheerful titbits about aspiring musicians and worldweary chorus girls. Here are the first few pages, as decorated by Granny:

I like the madness of all the pictures (which carry on through the book) and I might even read the book one day. "Peter swung out of the station with a cheerful step, intending to deposit his bag at the nearby hotel where he had booked a room. Just as he came out into the street, a voice behind him exclaimed, 'Ee! There go t'illuminations!' and the grey outline of the Tower, rising close in front of him above the roofs, was suddenly split from head to foot by zigzag lines of light, while its summit blazed forth like an imperial crown."

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Notebooks tamed

I've just completed my little project to number all my old notebooks. I was intending to scan some pages from them, but half an hour spent riffling through random jotters has convinced me that I am mad, self-obsessed and better off keeping my weirdness to myself.
   'Oh, that's disappointing,' I hear you cry, 'we were looking forward to a glimpse into your strangely uneventful life where one of the highlights of your written account of yourself is a list of "Ruth Rendell novels read".' Oh, go on then, if you insist.
     This is a page from notebook no. 2, compiled during my last year at school and while I was spending the year before university as an au pair in the suburbs of Paris. The family I worked for had an odd set-up. Both the parents worked, so they had me and also a kind of vampire home-help who never slept. Mme B had three low-paying jobs to make ends meet: she worked nights in a hospital, she took in dressmaking, and in the mornings she came to my French family's house to clean and to spend the 10 franc coin that they left out each day on food for the evening meal for the five of us (M. et Mme G, their two kids and me). This was very little money and our diet reflected this. Mme B would buy, say, potatoes and eggs, or pasta and a tiny lump of cheese, and then it would be up to me -- me! -- to make it into a meal in the evening. At this point I was a 17-year-old schoolgirl from Yorkshire whose mother hated cooking and whose greatest culinary achievement to date was a cold pork bap.
     However, the French family only had themselves to blame if they expected me to put food on the table every night. Mme B would tell me what to do -- 'peel les patates, boil les patates, fry les oeufs' etc -- and I would try to turn out a passable meal. I remember I used to struggle to drain pasta. It was bad.
     The list above represents the things I learnt to 'cook' which I actually liked. As this list contains such French delices as raw tomatoes filled with cold boiled fish and yoghurt with grapes, I think you can imagine what the less successful meals were like.
    In fact our bad diet had one dominant effect on all of us: it gave us terrible constipation. A few pages on in the same notebook is a list of 'Things to Pack for skiing, 8th February 1980', which includes this item:
I knew enough about the magic of fibre to have got myself a huge box of bran from the local health food shop (I can still remember the French for bran: son). One evening I was bold enough to get my giant box of sawdust out and start tipping it into the yoghurt I was having for pudding. Monsieur et Madame G stared at me for a while. Then I remember that Madame asked if she could see the box. She studied it for a while then went to get a yoghurt. Soon all three of us were munching down bran at every opportunity, so, if nothing else, I take credit for having saved that family from the nightmare of les problemes de transit.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Day at the Fair

I've had a day out at the London Book Fair today. If only the fair consisted of piles and piles of lovely vintage books, as in the picture above. Alas it does not. It is ultra-slick with massive stands put up by the big publishers that are just like big offices, full of execs beavering away trying to do deals. You can't wander onto them to look at the books or anything. There is a constant hubbub of voices which is at exactly the right pitch to activate my (very) partial deafness (ie too much time listening to John Peel on giant headphones as a teenager) so I spent the whole day feeling slightly out of it.
     It takes place at Earls Court and this is what it looks like:
There are many stern young women guarding the entrances to the stands and lots of middle-aged men in serious need of haircuts pulling little wheelie trolleys round. The food costs an arm and a leg and there aren't enough places to sit down. 'Why do you bother going?' I hear you ask. Good question. I did manage to spend most of the day feeling somewhat alienated and had to retire several times to neglected corners to have a read of my book, but I had some meetings in the afternoon with our US distributors and with our sales representatives, all of whom are extremely nice, and after that I felt more human.
     Funnily enough, one of the things you can't do at the fair is buy books, but I did manage to buy one, unexpectedly. I was admiring a gorgeous book on vintage packaging on one of the smaller stands where you can actually look at the wares. I asked the person on the stand whether they had a catalogue, so that I could track the book down later (it was a Spanish publishers). She said, no, but I could buy the book now if I wanted to and she knocked a few quid off the price. So it's mine:
Now that I'm home and looking through my carrier bag of free bookmarks and obscure catalogues, I feel more generous towards the whole event and am glad I work in this industry (you can be in no doubt that it really is an industry after a day at the book fair).

Sunday, 10 April 2011

1977 -- like it was yesterday

I've finally started doing something I've been meaning to do for months, which is putting all my old notebooks in order and numbering them. I've always had a notebook on the go and I've accumulated over thirty of them, dating back to early 1977, when I was fourteen.
     These are just cheap books full of random notes, not diaries, although some of them contain diary-like accounts of holidays and other experiences. There are two from when I was a teenager and then, sadly, there's a gap of about ten years (although I also have diaries which do fill in some of those years).
     So I've only got a little way in to the numbering exercise, but the first notebook is full of things that fascinate me. I can remember writing them and living the experiences they refer to, but at the same time they seem to reveal a strange, obsessively organised creature that I don't fully recognise as myself.
This is my record of the charts for the week ending 30 January 1977. The tracks with the asterisks are the ones I recorded off the radio onto a C46 cassette. David Soul was my idol and gets red pen. Actually it's only the top 19, I see.
     It's funny because it wouldn't be long before I was obsessed with the Tom Robinson Band and Stiff Little Fingers and the Fall and wearing a railwayman's donkey jacket and collarless white shirts all the time. But here's a couple of pages from a five-page record of my wardrobe at the time:
The key at the end explains that a heart symbol means 'best in section', a coloured dot indicates items that make up an outfit and a cross means 'on loan from Mum' (the shame!). This was the era of tunics worn over polo-necks and this was virtually all I wore at the time. I like that I've included the fabrics of some of these clothes -- I remember adoring the feel of towelling tops, which regrettably I didn't keep just for the beach. Courtelle and cheesecloth are also very redolent of this period for me.
     The eggs are designs for decorated blown eggshells, which was something I was really into at that time. There are 38 egg designs in total in this book.
This is me wearing the 'sailor motif t-shirt' mentioned in the clothes list. I'm pretending to drink beer on holiday in Corfu with my mum.
     The notebook reveals my appalling diet at the time. And also my great enjoyment of this bad food. Above is my lovingly prepared list of what I was going to take on a school trip to Cambridge -- about a 200-mile journey, but, still, FOUR pork baps! It would not have done to forget the crucial implement for eating the creme caramel.
Here's a little shopping list for goodies. Mmm, lamb n'mint sauce  flavour crisps. Not quite as good as tomato ketchup flavour, but not half bad. I must have gone into a daydream over the crisps as I haven't filled in the final item.
    Finally, here is the most damning evidence of my piggy lifestyle and lack of fashion flair: a page dedicated to preparations for a special school meal:
We were having this meal in the evening, but nonetheless I planned to have a 'light tea' at 6pm. And I don't suppose the grey tights with blue sandals won me many admirers. Blue mascara. blue eyeshadow, lip gloss, blusher -- so funny! I haven't worn make-up for years now.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

London day out

Yesterday I took another unplanned day's holiday. What decadence!
     After going to the Royal Mail depot at 7.15am to post my postcard for our swap (check out the website later to see everyone's first creations), I got an early train to London so that I could go to Bermondsey market. I've always wanted to go to this market which is so redolent of the underground history of London -- I'd heard that it was covered by a special law which meant that the provenance of an object sold between sunset and sunrise couldn't be questioned and so it was a perfect way of 'fencing' stolen goods (this law of 'marche ouvert' was only abolished in 1995, it turns out). To function within this law, the market traditionally opened at 4am.
     I didn't get there at 4am, but at about 10am. Early enough for me. In my mind Bermondsey was a Dickensian enclave crouched down below Tower Bridge in a foul miasma off the Thames. In reality it was incredibly up and come, and when I got to the square where the market takes place, it was developed to within an inch of its life with a boutique hotel, some kind of gallery space and a posh cinema. In the midst of all this brand-new smartness (which I don't dislike, don't get me wrong), like a besieged encampment, was the market. I fear it must be in the final phase of its existence, however long it can hang on for. All the stallholders seemed quite elderly and most had their heads wrapped in thick layers of hoods and scarves against the wind, like dwellers on the Russian steppes. The goods on sale were largely silver, watches, cutlery, jewelry -- not really my thing, but I still very much enjoyed the whole experience.
     All I bought were a few postcards, of which this is one:
Just now I've been googling the market and found this interesting article, which seems to confirm that the place is probably on its last legs. It will be a shame if it goes because it really is a bit of London history and made me think of Fagin and Bill Sykes. The article mentions Italian traders and in fact there was just such a trader who was desperately trying to sell the stuff on his stall to the man whose stall I was at (slowly going through a box of postcards). My chap was scoffing and shouting, 'If you can't sell it, why would I be able to?' which is a fair point. Then he tried to get me to buy the whole box of postcards (about 300 or more) for 50p a shot (instead of £1 each) but I said no thanks!
     Well this was only the start of my day out as next I went to the Hayward to see the Contemporary British Art show. This had me feeling completely perplexed and spaced out. I don't normally feel like this in the face of very modern art, not even at Frieze with its animatronic rubbish heaps and phoney architectural digs, but this was ... really out there. Normally I just take a very simple approach and take what pleasure I can find, without trying to analyse it all very much. But there just seemed to be so very little to get hold of at all, let alone to like or dislike. There was a metal park bench standing on its own, one end looked a little blacker than the rest. A card nearby said that 'at unspecified times the bench will burst into flames and a naked man may attend'. Alas the bench did not burst into flames and no naked man attended. There was a big square heap of soil with some yellow powder sprinkled on top and some little nodules of soap scattered about it. Why? There was a little pile of rolls of sticky tape and some cans of paint. A bulb rotating over a radio and making the radio buzz. There were some more conventional figurative paintings too, including some by George Shaw, who paints in Humbrol enamel.
I really like his work. I don't think I've really given a fair account of this exhibition because now I'm recalling more things that I liked, but still there was quite a lot that didn't engage me. But I'm still glad to have seen it because I like to keep up with what's happening.
     After that I went out of the South Bank past the Royal Festival Hall, where there was an amazing farmers' market, infinitely superior to anything I've ever seen before, so I feasted on the free samples (naughty me) and a samosa. Then I got the bus to Tate Britain to see the Susan Hiller exhibition.
This is the postcard I bought, a still from a film which played on four huge screens simultaneously in a darkened room with very very loud sounds of 'Whose a naughty boy, then?' and other snatches of Punch and Judy dialogue amusingly translated by a ponderous anthropologist voice. The film involved close-ups of Punch beating Judy, or Punch beating the baby and so on, to 'explore' the idea that Punch and Judy embodies deep atavistic violence. I think we all knew that already, but it was quite enjoyable being battered with sounds and images in the dark.
     I enjoyed it all quite a lot. I don't know very much about Susan Hiller, who was an anthropologist before she was an artist, or as well as being an artist, but I got a strong feeling about her that she has never really stopped being a 'real person' and been subsumed into an artist 'persona'. She seems like someone with curiosity about the world and who playfully explores ideas and collects things just because they appeal to her.
     There was another room where hundreds of tiny speakers hung down from wires in the ceiling and each speaker played a recording of someone telling how they'd seen a UFO (in lots of different languages), so you could wander through this forest of dangling wires, making them swish about and tuning into different accounts. You can see the anthropology in this, but it was also a good aesthetic experience.
     Another room, my favourite, had Hiller's collection of postcards of 'Rough Seas' -- hundreds like these ones:
She had carefully ordered them according to place and style of image and catalogued them all. It wasn't profound but I liked the rhythm of the cards in their framed grids. There was also a sweet sequence of frames where she had photographed her baby bump during the course of her pregnancy, looking down her body, so that the bump grew to fill the space of the photo over the ten (lunar) months that she recorded it. I also liked a wall of photographs of memorial plaques to Victorians who had died heroically trying to save people from fires or from runaway carriages and so on. This didn't really feel like 'art' (although I'm not about to debate what I think art is), but just felt as though she was sharing something wonderful that she'd found.
     These are some of the plaques:

In fact the plaques come from Postman's Park in Clerkenwell, I've now discovered, so this would be something to visit another day.
   I had better stop going on at such length. But I had a very stimulating day. No matter that I could barely walk by the time I got home and was in bed by 9pm.