Thursday, 26 December 2013

No-Net Christmas Day

I hope everyone had a lovely day yesterday. Somehow or other, perhaps not quite by mutual consent, it was decided that we would spend yesterday entirely 'off Net'. Our internet connection was switched off at the hub and although it had been mooted that all phones, iPads, tablets and gizmos would be collected in a box and locked away, we decided to take it on trust that we would all stay away from the internet for the day.

For breakfast we had smoked salmon on slices of brown bread that had been made in the breadmaker overnight -- what a wonderful thing the breadmaker is and yet we hardly ever use it. Then the 'children' played games while David made all these lovely things for our 'elevenses': Bucks Fizz, parmesan biscuits, fruity cousins of 'pigs in blankets' (I don't know of a name for apricots in bacon -- 'apes in anoraks'?), Nigella's nuts (WARNING: do not eat Nigella's delicious nuts for breakfast on Boxing Day as I have just done, giving myself indigestion as a punishment for being greedy and trying to find all the pecans), and homemade focaccia with oil and balsamic vinegar to dip it in.
The 'children' were in inverted commas just above as I'm afraid I became the third child of the family yesterday, playing Continuo and Cranium Ziggity and loads of other games from our long-neglected games cupboard. David has become very keen on cooking and insisted on doing everything -- who am I to spoil his fun? So it was picture consequences for me and the kids:
Then, while Christmas dinner was cooking, we all did Dora's amazing quiz which included a picture round where we had to identify places round the house and special rounds on family enthusiasms: I was gutted to do so badly in the Breaking Bad and Sweden rounds. Gutted.

In fact I came last overall in the quiz, which I just couldn't believe. Had to hide my humiliation after a brief howl of defeat escaped my lips.
     Part of the 'analogue' day was that each of us should devise an activity. Dora did her quiz, Charlie arranged Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer for guitar (him), ukelele (Dora), shaker (David) and electronic xylophone (me -- appallingly. It seems all my music skills have completely left me -- hardly surprising when I've barely touched an instrument for about thirty years). That was fun.
     Oh dear, my activity was a disaster! The other three were sitting round the table in their blindfolds and I had only just spooned the first teaspoonful of sardines into David's mouth when his protestations made the other two refuse to play 'What's the food?' -- so my plans for preserved ginger, Brie, garlic at al had to be abandoned.
    After that we played 'Whatto Lotto', the game I invented when the kids were little and which I would love to get manufactured. It works! It's fun! And you can learn about the thingness of things from it. Maybe in 2014...
     My second try at an idea for something to do was a bit hit and miss too -- find something to read out to everybody else. Dora read a great bit from Morrissey's autobiography about his schooldays, Charlie read a funny poem by John Agard, David did a comic recitation from the Popular Comic Reciter of 1890 and I tried to read a bit from The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, which didn't go well. 'But she was only nine!' didn't cut it.

Does this day sound like your idea of heaven or hell? It was heaven, honestly. The day passed in a flash and we sat down to our lovely dinner at about 5.30pm. The telly wasn't verboten so after that we watched the tail end of 'Call the Midwife', just so we could see Miranda looking awful in a wig and twin set.
     Not long after that I retired to bed to read my book. It was a lovely day, even if I turned out to be the naughtiest child.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Ah Morrissey...

With Morrissey's autobiography high in the bestseller lists, I can't help looking back wistfully to 1987 when I was working as an editor at Bloomsbury. Keen to make my mark, I would fire off letters to all sorts of people, expressing my (genuine) interest in commissioning them to write a book. One such person was Morrissey. I have a copy of the letter I wrote to him -- it's too embarrassing in its plangent sincerity to reproduce here. I described the book I had in mind for him to write: 'Nothing so linear as an autobiography', something which would draw on his 'influences and obsessions'.
     Almost by return of post I received an A4 envelope emblazoned with animal-welfare stickers:

Inside was a large photocopy of the arm-wrestling scene from The Family Way, a 1966 British film starring Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett (with an original score by Paul McCartney):
On the back was a wonderful note from Morrissey, written in his beautiful handwriting and with a drawing at the end.
The book he mentions was a signed copy of Terence Stamp's memoir, which we had just published.
Even better, he professed himself keen on the idea I'd proposed and wanted to meet up. Here's where it all goes a bit blurry, 26 years on. I know I went to meet him somewhere -- I think it was in a very smart Chelsea hotel, but I didn't actually get to meet him. Did he cancel at the last minute or just stand me up? -- I don't recall. Nothing ever came of the book, anyway, and the world has had to wait until 2013 for Morrissey to bring forth 480 pages of his life.
     This whole business of trying to coax famous people into writing books turned out to be a vale of tears, culminating in the utter humiliation of attending a recording of French and Saunders' show (with their agent) and seeing them do a sketch based on the meeting I'd had with them a couple of days earlier, when I'd tried to persuade them that doing a Christmas stocking filler book wouldn't be too onerous (let's not even mention the huge amount of money that was on offer). My fairly straight explanation that a 64-page book with lots of pictures in it wouldn't take too long to write was turned into a toe-curlingly twee speech about how the book would fit into a matchbox and take three seconds to put together (I'm paraphrasing). It was a very weird sketch, possibly born out of a need to fill thirty minutes of the show with material, some of which was put together at the last minute. Perhaps, if you're a fan, you'll remember it. I'll never forget it! Needless to say, I didn't get to publish their book either.
     I treasure my letter from Morrissey and have been showing it to my daughter's friends only this week, as they are now second-generation Morrissey fans. They were nice enough to make excited noises.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Man of glass

My dad's birthday is coming up and I've been trying to think of something interesting to get him. Recently I researched his side of the family, which he was fascinated by, so I thought I'd try to bring somebody from his family's past to life for him. This is easier said than done, but you never know what Google will turn up.
    I wrote out a list of various places and surnames that had cropped up in his family tree and then I started searching fairly randomly. Tyne and Wear Archives (my Dad's family are from Newcastle and thereabouts, going back) have some wonderful early mugshots of criminals from Newcastle Gaol dating from 1871-1873.
screen grab of some of the mugshots -- hands had to be in shot as certain characteristics were believed to indicate criminality
One of the criminals shared a surname with one of our relatives -- or rather our relative had the same name for his middle name: Jobling. Here is the naughty fellow: James Augustus Jobling...
James was 26 and unmarried when he was sentenced to one month in prison for malicious wounding in 1873. Here's his entry in the big book of crime:
A month doesn't seem a very long sentence for malicious wounding, although by the 1870s (judging from the details in the criminal registers) it was no longer the case that people were transported to Australia for stealing a handkerchief or a lamb, as in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (transportation to Australia ended in 1868 although it had become a rare punishment by then). Still, crimes against property seem to have been punished more severely than crimes against the person at the time of James Jobling's misdemeanour.
     James' clothes seem rather fine in the photograph and his whiskers, though wispy, seem to betoken a person of some standing. In fact, James' family was one of the most powerful in Newcastle. His father, Mark Lambert Jobling (born 1806), who had died three years previously, had been Sheriff of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as a solicitor, 'coal owner', glass manufacturer and ship owner. James was the fourth of Mark's five children and they grew up in homes on one of Newcastle's main thoroughfares, Percy Street.
     Although James had studied theology in London in the early 1870s, he was destined to follow his father into manufacturing. Notwithstanding his criminal record, by 1881 he owned the Tyne Oil and Grease Works, and in 1885 he bought out a local glass manufacturing firm, Greener & Co, which was going under. Jobling was one of its chief creditors as he also supplied the raw materials for the pressed flint glass that the company specialised in. Renaming the company James A. Jobling & Co, James doesn't seem to have made much of a success of it until his nephew (his sister Julia's only son out of six children) Ernest Jobling Purser joined the company in 1902.
Ernest Jobling Purser
He seems to have been a born businessman (he looks as though he belongs to a completely different era from his uncle James), and in 1921 he managed to acquire the European licence for Pyrex ware. The heatproof glass was a massive success and continued to be made at Jobling's Sunderland factory until it closed in 2007. Both James and Ernest much have become massively wealthy. Ernest got a pilot's licence and lived in this large house, Hylton Grange in North Hylton, near the factory:
The Grange, North Hylton
He ended his days in Rathmines Castle, Dublin (he was Irish by birth) whilst James Augustus' last address was Sonachan House in remote Argyll, Scotland.
Sonachan House, Argll
I've never been a massive fan of Pyrex (beyond its practical use), but I love pressed glass. Jobling's glassware became the closest thing this side of the Channel to Lalique glass and it was thinking about this that finally made me remember that when David and I were on our honeymoon back in the Nineties we actually bought a beautiful Jobling glass bowl. Our honeymoon was a collectors' tour around the North of England culminating in a night at the amazing Art Deco Midland Hotel in Morecambe, and we bought the bowl in Hexham. I can't photograph the actual bowl as, alas, it's stored in our loft at the moment, but I found an image of it online:
It has fish swimming around it and is really beautiful, opalescent.
     But that may be my only link with James Augustus Jobling, for better or worse. When I went back to the Jobling in my Dad's bit of our family tree, I began to suspect that he was probably there in error. Children were often given their mother's surname as their middle name, so it might suggest that this person's mother had been a Jobling. However, his father, Henry Carr, was married to a Mary Faddy and many of the other children had Faddy as their middle name. I think Richard Jobling Carr crept into the family tree because another Henry Carr married a Margery Jobling at around the same time. On Ancestry.co.uk (which I am addicted to), it's possible to hoover up great tracts of other people's family trees, thus enlarging your own very quickly, but if there's an error in another person's tree then it will transfer to your own and may only be discovered after hours of diligent checking.
     So, after all, I don't believe we're related to James Augustus Jobling, a bit of a wrong'un in his twenties (who knows what the story was there?) and the owner of the most important glass factory in the country.

One final note is that one of Ernest Purser's cousins was the Irish artist Sarah Henrietta Purser.
Sarah Henrietta Purser, self-portrait sketch

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Looking for Mrs Jamfrey (and others)

A wonderfully terrible photo
Here are some of the random old photos I picked up at the weekend. Whilst I was crouched in front of the photos for all those hours on Saturday, I overheard quite a few people commenting on the phenomenon of the old, orphaned photographs and finding them weird; some of them expressed distaste: 'Ugh, photos of dead people!' I just can't understand that sentiment. They fill me with tenderness. They are not simply pictures of random people but records of actual moments in their lives. Who knows what fun was being had in the photo above, who loved who, who was excited at the opportunity to josh so physically? I will never know, but the photo is precious, now that I've picked it out of the sea of countless other untethered images bobbing round the world.
     Here are a few more:
Giant cat alert!

I picked out this one because it looked so perfect for a book cover:
I can just see it in my mind's eye:
Of course it's not me in the photo, but it's only an imaginary book...
 As I mentioned in my last post, I love finding old photos of houses and looking them up online to see what their history is and what they look like nowadays. On the back of the one above is written, 'Hillcrest, Augustine Road, Drayton'. Drayton, a suburb of Portsmouth, has changed enormously since this was taken (in the 1930s?) but I think I've found the house as it is today, though it has been painted and altered:
If you look closely, you can see the texture of the original brickwork beneath the paint. Funny that the chimneypots have disappeared -- redundant, I guess.
As you can see, the photo above is of 42 Pickhurst Rise. That turns out to be in West Wickham near Bromley in Kent. Today it looks like this:
Hardly changed at all.
I've been trying exhaustively to find this house:
The name 'Fir Cottage' is over the door and on the back it says, 'George's Mum's home near Guildford, Surrey, October 1951'. I've narrowed the search down to Shalford in Surrey but, despite hunting through census returns and all sorts, haven't been able to pinpoint the house itself. I shouldn't have spent so much time on it -- what difference does it make whether I know where this particular house is or not? None. But the search itself is incredibly absorbing and I love to link the past to the present.

This is Mrs Jamfrey from Northern Ireland.

I tell you what, I'd love a job as an 'heir hunter' -- I think I'm honing the very skills you need. It probably isn't as exciting as I think -- even on the telly they can't make it look terribly glam.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Serendipity? I'll show you serendipity

Dr Aleks Krotoski with her Serendipity Engine
Yesterday I turned Radio 4 on at my favourite time of day, for the 9.00 to 9.30am slot. Apart from Wednesdays (sorry, Libby), I almost always enjoy the programmes in this slot. And yesterday was Thursday, so the slot of the hallowed In Our Time, my favourite of all. However, Sir Melvyn is still bestriding the fells or walking through Green Park or whatever he does when he's off air and the programme I heard was Last Bus to Serendip, made by Dr Aleks Krotoski about her 'Serendipity Engine'.
     I love serendipity and I agree with one of the speakers in the programme, Phil Smith, who described the feeling when something serendipitous happens to you as 'a beautiful plane of ecstasy'. But as the programme unfolded I began to question it more and more. Dr Aleks, who is a clever and accomplished person and who has written lots of things I'd like to read, has made a machine which lives in suitcases and which tries to 'predict serendipity'. This very idea seems either self-contradictory (if something can be predicted then surely it isn't serendipitous, by definition?) or, less interestingly, just a bit of fun: a fancy name for a random generator of crazy combinations of things. I imagine it must tend more towards the latter, but the more I listened to the programme and then looked into the Engine online, the more irritated I felt that it was possibly being presented in a way that was, yes, quirkily 'fun' but also perhaps a bit bogus. The machine itself was described as very Heath-Robinson, fitting into a couple of suitcases and consisting of knobs and levers and flashing lights, but in fact -- and obviously it has to be, if you think about it -- it's an online thing. People who 'consult' the machine have to do various things including answering some silly questions such as 'What three foods would you eat if you were going to die tomorrow?' and turning a squiggle into a drawing. I'll come back to this in a moment...
     The programme itself irked me somewhat by pretending to be full of serendipitous meetings which were clearly arranged beforehand so that specific people could talk to Aleks about their take on serendipity. I know that's how it must be in order to put together a reasonable programme, but in a programme about serendipity it stuck in my throat that there was this pretence. Obviously Narguess Farzad didn't just happen to be sitting in a park reciting Persian poetry by Hafez when Aleks K happened along and they got talking about how Hafez is consulted as a type of divination. Equally obviously I guess Aleks didn't just jump on a train to Exeter and happen to bump into 'mythogeographer' Phil Smith who then spoke so eloquently about serendipity -- but it was the fact that she pretended to jump on the first train leaving from the station and it happened to be going to Exeter that got my goat. I suppose I should have suspended my disbelief and just enjoyed the programme. I noted that Prof. Richard Wiseman didn't seem to have played along with the serendipitous meeting thing and he was just on the end of a phone -- he's my kind of sceptic.
     Anyhoo, it got to the point where I thought, huh, maybe she didn't even go to Exeter, but Phil Smith had said that Aleks was sitting close to the bottom of General Sir Redvers Buller's horse, and, thanks to Google Street View, I found the very bus stop where Aleks is pictured on the BBC website (and above):
It is indeed just near the statue of General Buller on his horse, in the centre of Exeter. And if this isn't serendipitous, from one angle on Street View his horse has a traffic cone on its ear, making it look like a mad unicorn:
That made me quite happy.
    Anyway, I decided to have a go at the old Serendipity Engine myself. First of all you had to draw a circle inside a square (on a sheet that you printed out), and then you had to make a drawing from a squiggle. This is mine:
But then you had to let the Engine take a photo of you holding your sheet using the webcam embedded in your computer and the one I was on didn't have one -- so the pic was never uploaded. I answered all the other questions, including giving my address (postcode and house number), my Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus monikers, and I pressed the button to get the Engine's recipe for my special serendipitous 'koan' and the circumstances for considering it. This is what I got:
Well, isn't it just a lot of nonsense? The big giveaway is that apparently the Engine's Human Task Force had looked at my webphoto and my drawings to determine my level of personal attractiveness. I saw on the Engine site that it says real people are paid $1.50 a time to evaluate both your photo and your drawings. The creativity evaluation allegedly uses the Barron-Welsh Art Scale (which looks a teensy bit loopy). But my pictures were never even put into the algorithm because I didn't have a webcam. In lots of ways, I feel I should treat the Serendipity Engine in exactly the same way as I should have listened to the programme -- as something lighthearted and amusing, a bit of imaginative technology. But then I got rather paranoid and wondered whether there was conceivably some motive beyond fun for the Engine -- perhaps it's an experiment in how gullible people are, how readily they will give up significant and identifying data about themselves. Happily, there's a note on the Engine website that says if you want to remove your answers from the engine you can, by emailing Aleks Krotoski -- so I did, and almost immediately received a nice email back from her saying that my data was now gone from the dread engine. So all's well that ends well, and actually I'm sure the whole thing is far from evil -- it seems very transparent and there's a mass of information there to be read by anyone who's interested. Go on and have a look yourself, see what you think.
     The end of the story is that, later on, I actually reached that 'plane of ecstasy' of true serendipity when I discovered that one of the random photos I bought in Brighton (it's not one of Henry's pictures -- different writing, no number, etc) on Sunday actually has an extraordinary link to my obsessive interest in the Hamiltons of Fintra. I chose a few pictures of houses, if they were identified on the back, because I love looking up old houses on Street View to see how they look now. Among three or four that I bought was this one:
On the back is written: 'Dalton Fields Farm 14/7/40', so evidently taken in July 1940. When I googled it, I discovered that not only is the house less than ten miles from where I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, but it was once occupied by a Joseph Glover, born in 1776. He married Elizabeth Hutchinson, from nearby Earby Hall, and she was the aunt of Ann Hutchinson, born 1803, who married James Hamilton of Fintra and was Henry Fitzgerald Reynolds' grandmother!
This is the house today. What really intrigues me is who the ghostly figures captured behind the railings of the 1940 photo are and whether they could possibly be relatives of Joseph Glover and Elizabeth Hutchinson? Three elderly ladies seem to be greeting a young boy. Is he carrying a suitcase? Was the photo perhaps taken as his parents dropped him off to stay with his granny and aunts for a holiday?
This photo has already given me an immense amount of pleasure -- serendipitously.

Next post: more old photo sleuthing...

PS: I have read Sartre and I don't think he's overrated.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Back to Brighton in search of Henry's photos

Brighton c.1950
Call me crazy (I usually do), but I've been back to Brighton again in an effort to gain 'closure' with regard to the cache of photos that I knew was there. I'd been brooding about those photos since I got the briefest of sessions with them back in June when I went to Brighton with my son for a Sussex University open day. On that occasion he dragged me away after about twenty minutes, but as I had already found a couple of photos belonging to 'my' Henry Fitzgerald-Reynolds, I couldn't get the idea out of my head that there might still be a few more left to find.
The latest (in the sequence) of Henry's photos that I now own: his vegetable patch, from 1943, two years before he died
I got an early train on Saturday morning and by half past ten I was back at the flea-market stall, sitting on a little stool in front of the boxes of photos.
I went systematically through every photo, first looking at the backs and then at the fronts. Anyone who saw me sifting through the backs of hundreds of photographs probably thought I really was crazy, but the backs of Henry's photos are the best way to recognise them as he was very organised and numbered almost all his pictures as well as annotating many of them. Thus the one above of the vegetable garden is no.524 and looks like this on the back:
So I know it was taken in 1943 when Henry was 77. 18 Hazeldene Road, Weston-super-Mare was the last house he and his wife Gladys lived in together (Gladys lived until 1971 but seems to have spent her final years in London). You can see that this is the slightly shaky handwriting of an elderly man -- he was 17 years older than his wife. Even though it isn't a very successful photograph, Henry obviously thought it was worth keeping, showing, as it does, the 'back of house, closer up, Raspberry canes on right'.
The house in Hazeldene Road today
All in all, I found thirteen more of Henry's photos during my trawl, including three without any annotation on the backs but where I recognised his daughter Kathleen, whose face I now know so well. Thirteen new photos was definitely worth the trip, and now I feel I need to really scrutinise them to see what new information might be gleaned from them. I wonder if I'll ever know who these people are, standing with Kathleen?:
Kathleen is on the right
And I wonder if I'll ever know what this building is or where it is?
No clue on the back of the photo as to where this is. The entrance is very imposing
Altogether, I now have forty of Henry's photos -- but what disturbs me is the thought of where the other 500 or so photos from his collection are (if I have one numbered 524)? They're out there somewhere, but I doubt I'll ever find them. I've scanned them all in order so that I can see Henry, Gladys and Kathleen growing older as the years pass by. Henry seems hardly to have changed over the twenty or so years that the images span:
Henry with daughter Kathleen as a child -- date approx. 1920
Henry with Gladys in 1938

I spent four and a half hours on my little stool at the photo stall! While I was there I heard all the browsers around me commenting on what was for sale and I can tell you that if you have an antiques shop or stall, the item that will arouse the most interest is a drinks cabinet in shape of a globe! Whether it would ever sell is another question. And while I was crouching over the photos, only one person spoke to me, a very nice woman (hello Jean, if you read this!) who asked me why I was sorting through the photos so carefully and with whom I had a really good chat.
     My best find on Saturday was a new picture of my favourite of Henry's relatives, Nancy Hamilton from Tasmania.
Kathleen, Nancy Hamilton and Kathleen's mother Gladys
As well as panning for the 'gold' of Henry's photos, I also picked out some other random photos that I'll blog about in my next post. And I went to Brighton City Art Gallery as there's always something interesting on there. This time there was a Jeff Koons Artist's Room. I'm always interested to see what Koons does, and I have enjoyed some of his more in-your-face art jokes in the past. I loved his colouring-book inspired piece outside the Royal Academy last year. But his meticulous reproductions in bronze of plastic inflatables leave me a little bit cold, though, and that was the centrepiece of this small show.
Also at the city art gallery was a beautiful selection of works from their collection by women.
I specially liked Averil and Veronica Burleigh. Veronica was Averil's daughter and both painted in the first half of the twentieth century. Averil's Washerwomen from 1930 is lovely (the washerwomen were probably modelled by Veronica and other members of the family, apparently), but I adore Veronica's 1937 painting, Self-portrait with the Artist's Parents. Veronica looks so strong and newfangled in those sunglasses.
Washerwomen by Averil Burleigh, 1930
Veronica Burleigh: Self-portrait with the Artist's Parents, 1937
She definitely seems to be saying that she belongs to a new generation of artists.