Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sepia Saturday 299 : The Days Of Wine And Wampoles

This photograph must have been taken in 1949 when I was about a year old. That is, of course, me in the pram being watched over by my mother and my brother. The photograph was taken at the seaside, but forget the background, forget the watchers - just focus on that smiling little face. Now take a look at the smiling face of the child advertising Wampole's Preparation on the image prompt for Sepia Saturday 299. It's uncanny isn't it : the same smile, the same happy countenance, the same look of contentment. There can be only one conclusion - I must have been spoon-fed Wampole's as a child.

This conclusion inspired me to undertake further research into the nature of Wampole's - what did it contain, what was I drip-fed along with my mothers' milk? I eventually discovered this image of Wampole's on the website of the National Museum of American History. And suddenly everything became clear : Alcohol 12%! That is equivalent to the strongest beer you can find, the same as a glass of wine, not too far off a whisky with plenty of ice.

At the same time my father was signing me up as a member of The Sons Of Temperance (this is not a lie), my mother was spooning pints of Hardcore IPA down my gullet. No wonder I have turned out like I am . . . .  happy, smiling and very, very content.

Check out what other Sepians think of Wampole's Preparation by going to the Sepia Saturday Blog and following the links.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Soho Strip Show

A scan of a strip of negatives dating back to the late 1970s when we lived in London. It is fairly easy to work out which area of London these photographs were taken in : the smoke and the sleaze almost oozes out of the grain. 

These were taken long before digital technology came up with the idea of imprinting the date pictures were taken on the photographs themselves; but the era is written in the clothes, the cars, and the faces of the passers-by.

This time and this place needs monochrome. Sound and colour would surely be distracting.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tied Together With A Spool Of Blue Thread

I am involved in my usual activity at this time of year which is trying to get through as many of the Man Booker shortlist as I can before the winner is announced. I know that compared to others who set themselves such challenges as cycling bareback across the Gobi Desert whilst wearing a Mr Blobby suit, this might sound like small beer, but a challenge is a challenge and, compared to the rest of the year when the greatest challenge I face is getting up to the bar to order another pint, it is a significant annual event in my calendar. I have almost finished Anne Tyler's "A Spool Of Blue Thread" (just the last bit threaded around the bobbin to go, so to speak) and it has made me think about whether there is any such thing as a "normal family".

That is a normal family in the picture at the head of this post. I have no idea who they are (although I feel I have known the man on the right of the photograph all my life); the photograph came from a job lot of unwanted photographs I bought on eBay. But they look like such a normal family - and therefore their lives will be threaded together by the usual collection of secrets, tragedies, and love affairs. Tied together with a spool of blue thread no doubt.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Gone To The Moon, Back Soon (Possibly)

Got back from Spain yesterday afternoon after a thoroughly enjoyable week in the sun in Spain with fabulous hosts (thank you Bev and Jamie) and excellent company (thank you Robert and Carrie). This week will have to be a rapid turnaround in the unpacking / packing cycle because next Tuesday we set off .... for Spain! A different part of Spain this time : we are heading for a few days in Valencia and a few days in Madrid, but it is certain to be just as enjoyable. In a comment to my earlier "Gone To Spain" announcement, the inimitable Chairman Bill said "Anyone would think you were retired! You should get a locum for the blog..." which seems like an excellent idea. Applications on the back of a vintage postcard.

All that sitting squashed up in an airline seat brought my sciatica back on and it woke me up at 4.00am. Unable to get back to sleep I decided to see if there was anything of the famous lunar eclipse visible in the skies above West Yorkshire. There was none of the promised blood-red colour, but the moon had quite a nice chunk bitten out of it (to use the scientific expression). The photograph was taken using my recently acquired Sony Cyber-Shot with its astonishing 63x optical zoom. It looks rather nice : I wonder if Jet2 do cheap flights to the moon!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sepia Saturday 296 : A Nascent Ephemerist And An Ecclesiastical Menu

On Thursday the 30th of October 1975, the Lord Bishop of Rochester settled down to a glass of Liebfraumilch Rosenhag (1972), some Chassagne Montrachet (1967), and, once the ladies had retired, a glass of Taylors Crusted Port. I share this information with you in the hope of connecting - however obtuse that connection may be - with the Sepia Saturday theme for this week which is a wine bottle label.

Not only can I enlighten you to the said Lord Bishop's liquid intake that evening, I can tell you what he had to eat as well. There was Creme Vichyssoise, a salmon and cucumber mousse, a chunk of venison, followed by orange sorbet and cheese ramequins. And if you are beginning to proclaim "too much information", I can top it all off by telling you that whilst he chewed away on his leg of venison he was listening to a military band play selections from Ronald Hamner's "The Oak And The Rose". I can tell you all this because I recently bought on eBay a selection of the late Lord Bishop's collected menus.

In the cold light of day, I am not sure which is odder : to have a collection of menus, to put such a collection up for sale years after the ecclesiastical diner has passed the final port, or to buy such a collection. I suspect it is the latter, but oddness is a charge I have pleaded guilty to throughout my life and the investment of a couple of quid was worth it to help me progress towards my goal of becoming an ephemerist.

As I have explained before, an ephemerist is someone who collects useless bits of paper in the belief that what others see as useless is the very essence of historical usefulness. Any Rothschild can collect Faberge eggs, any Saatchi can amass modern art, but a takes a slightly odd person, an ephemerist, to collect ecclesiastical menus.

Not only do I have the menu from the Centenary Dinner of the Institution Of Royal Engineers but I have the typed notes issued to the Bishop which includes such instructions as "10.10 MUST LEAVE DINING ROOM as some guests and members have to catch trains from 10.38 onwards (Hosts have been warned to ensure guests catch their trains regardless of "state of play")". You would never get detail like that etched on a Krugerrand.

So I ask you to raise a glass of Chassagne Montrachet to the late Lord Bishop and a glass of Liebfraumilch to the launch of Alan Burnett as an ephemerist and noted collector of ecclesiastic menus.

Whilst you let your cheese ramequins digest and you sip on your crusted port, why not wander over to look at what other Sepian are posting on the Sepia Saturday Blog.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Playing Faust And Loose With Too Much Time On My Hands

I was accused the other day of having too much time on my hands. It is a charge I am proud to plead guilty to. My ambition during the last twenty or thirty years has been to work towards a situation where I have too much time on my hands and therefore I can get involved in all of those meaningless pursuits that are the very lifeblood of us too-much-timers. If it wasn't for people like me - people with fistfuls of time to fill - who would ever count the feathers on a shuttlecock, source a supply of donkey-stone for dressing front steps, draw detailed maps of Greater Slaithwaite, or research the early theatre career of Miss Violet Vanbrugh.

I acquired an old picture postcard of Miss Vanbrugh the other day and, with time hanging heavy from my coat sleeves, I started to read the script of the first Victorian burlesque she ever appeared in (at Toole's Theatre, London in 1886) - a charming little piece entitled "Faust And Loose". Here is a little snippet from Act Two: you might want to read it if you find yourself having a little too much time on your hands.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

In Which The Author Falls Asleep Whilst Reading An Old Trade Directory And Waiting For A Parcel To Arrive

I was waiting for a delivery driver to bring a parcel yesterday and passing my time by looking through an old Directory (The Halifax County Borough Directory for 1936 to be precise). As so often is the case with such old publications, it is the adverts which are more fascinating than the editorial content (who, other than her offspring, would be interested in the fact that Minnie F Heckingbottom lived at 25 Helm Street?). In particular, my eye was caught by an advert from a firm of haulage contractors (R. Blakeley of Pye Nest) which was illustrated by a line of splendid old wagons. 

They specialised in carrying goods - "from a parcel to a load" - between Halifax and the North-East. I had never thought too much about parcel deliveries back in those far off days, but it would appear that once you had worked out where you wanted your parcel to go you had to hunt around for a firm to take it there. The whole process must have been both complicated and a little hit or miss - as you watched the fine majolica vase you had packed so carefully set out on its journey to Auntie Winnie on the back of an open wagon, sharing space with a couple of hundredweight of nutty-slack.

As I waited for "your driver Brian" to deliver my parcel during a frightening precise time-window ("between 12.56 and 13.56") carried on reading my old Trade Directory and thought of how the Internet has changed the landscape within which we live. On the next page was an advert for another local firm - Arthur Dixon & Co Ltd - who prided themselves on being able to supply all forms of wire articles.
These days if I wanted some new tent pegs, I suppose I would turn to Amazon or eBay in order to source them rather than a local directory. I quickly checked on Amazon and discovered that I could get 20 heavy duty tent pegs for £4.45 and that included free delivery on one of the wagons of Mssrs. Blakeley. You can even buy a 10kg sack of coal from Amazon for £14.99 although I was intrigued to note that there was only one customer review which was "impossible to light".  I was just contemplating whether or not you could order a wire thingamajig to help you set fire to your nutty-slack when I was finally woken from my dream by the door bell. It was 13.09 and there was Brian, smiling, holding a parcel and asking me to digitally sign a receipt.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Looking At Dirty Photographs In My Sunday Best

I have been scanning slides today - a bit of a change from my usual black and white negative scanning. I was of that generation where colour slides were the "Sunday Best" of photography - kept for high days and holidays and far too expensive to use on photographs of the town gas works or candid portraits of Auntie Annie in her back garden. When you bought a colour slide film you paid for the processing as well, and once the film was shot you would pop it in the post and a week or so later 20 or 36 colour slides would arrive in a little plastic case. With the cost of the processing and postage included, the price you paid for a single film was frighteningly high (the equivalent to about £30 - £40 ($50 - $60) in today's prices), and that made you choosy about what you shot. Black and white negative film could be developed in a plastic tank under your eiderdown with the help of some foul-smelling chemicals, so that was the medium for everyday photography.

The main difference with scanning slides is that restoring them to decent condition can be a far more involved process, for the pictures themselves tend to be far more dirty (in the nicest possible meaning of the phrase). Negatives were printed and then put away - it was the resulting prints that got handed around and chewed by the dog. Slides would be handled repeatedly and therefore they gathered dust and fingerprints and gravy stains with the enthusiasm of a hoarder. When - fifty years down the line - the time comes to scan them it can take a considerable amount of time to get rid of the specks, stains and miscellaneous hairs with a digital scrubbing brush.

These two photographs were taken in, I think, 1962 or 1963 during a family holiday to Scotland.  The first photograph shows tramp steamers arriving at Kinlochleven harbour to collect the finished aluminium from the smelting plant there.. The second one must have been taken high on the mountains overlooking the loch and, as that seems to be me in the picture, the photographer must have been my brother, Roger. I can still remember that holiday, although by now that memory is covered in a layer of dust and old fingerprints. It is a shame that there is no digital scrubbing brush you can apply to life.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Walk Around My Past : 1

Family history tends to be a vertical affair. We dig down in straight lines connecting generations. I am the son of Albert Burnett, who was the son of Enoch Burnett, who was the son of John Burnett, who was the son of James Burnett  ... and so on; generation begetting generation in a vertical line stretching back into history. It is an attractive approach to understanding where we come from: we can follow a DNA thread backwards in the comfortable knowledge that a bit of me comes from a bit of her that comes from a bit of him. But the approach can also be deceptive : we are neither clones of our forefathers (or foremothers) nor are we isolated from our environments. What made us what we are is far more complex than a simplified DNA pie-chart. It is a complicated cocktail of people, places and events and you can occasionally get a better appreciation of this cocktail by abandoning the vertical perspective and adopting a horizontal viewpoint.

So what happens when we cut through history in order to try and compose a picture of all the various elements that made me who I am today. And let us - for the sake of argument and convenience - make that cut 154 years ago in 1861. 

If we take just the biological perspective, then I am the product of first two, then four, then eight sets of ancestors (and if I go back further than my 154 years, that number will go up exponentially until, without a doubt, I will eventually be related to you, cousin of mine). But in 1861 we can isolate the eight I want to concentrate on - my mother's four grandparents and my father's four grandparents. All eight were alive in 1861 and thanks to the 1861 census, all eight were traceable.

And once we have traced them we can move on from the strictly biological view to one which is far more interesting. This view is shaped by where they lived, how they lived, and what they did. And it is this more intricate and fascinating picture I want to try and interpret in the following parts of this short series. 

But for now let us content ourselves with driving metaphorical stakes in the ground and plotting the location of each of the eight on the night of Sunday 7th April 1861, the night the census was taken. And the first interesting thing we discover is that for six of the eight, I could have visited during a day's walk from where I live today. If I had managed an early start, I could have walked north and popped in to have breakfast with John Burnett, a mid morning cup of tea with his future wife, Phoebe Broadbent, lunch with John Maxfield and his young wife Sarah Ann, and then pressed on for supper with Fowler and Eliza Beanland. The final two of my eight were further afield, but we will come to them in good time. My first stop, will be at Low Moor, six miles up the road from where I live now. I will meet you there.