Monday, March 31, 2014

That's What I Was Taking A Photograph Of


It's a look most amateur photographers are familiar with; a look that says "what on earth is he taking a photograph of?" You take photographs of Blackpool Tower or Piccadilly Circus or your Edith's wedding, not a nondescript street in Bradford. But Blackpool Tower is still there in all its glory and Piccadilly Circus is still crowded with all that traffic .... but most of the buildings in my old photograph have been flattened by the bulldozers. The trolley bus lines over the street have long been removed and the trolley buses have been consigned to a museum. The chap with the trilby hat will be no more and the mini skirt will have shrunk to a memory. That's what I was taking a photograph of.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

An SMS From The Past



One of the most interesting aspects of photographs is that they capture an instant in time and fix it for eternity. I am not talking about the carefully composed pictures of grand old structures - such as the west front of York Minster illustrated above - but the unpretentious snap that shows grandad with his false teeth falling out or baby Stanley pulling a silly face. But what some vintage postcards miss on one side, they more than adequately make up for on the reverse side. The card comes from Walter and was sent to his cousin who was living in Hull. I have no more of an idea who either of them are than I have the story of how the card made its way from Miss Clarkson's sideboard to a 50p remainders box in an old junk shop. But we have that frozen moment in time : it is the morning of the 18th June 1915. In France, the Second Battle of Artois was in full swing, but in York, Walter was on his way to Ripon. Perhaps he was moving house, perhaps he was part of a massive troop movement in anticipation of leaving for the mud of Flanders. Who knows. Our frozen moment in time just sees him taking the time to buy a picture postcard and pen a swift message to his cousin in Hull. It was a text message of the time; a SMS that has survived down the years. It is rather sad for the digital archaeologists of the future that few of today's text messages will survive in the same way.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sepia Saturday 221 : Digging The Fertile Soil Of History


Each week, Sepia Saturday challenges participants to go digging amongst their collection of old photographs in order to come up with something that - however obtusely - matches the set theme. For Sepia Saturday 221, the theme image features a lot of water : so I needed to go digging for water - and I came up with this recently discovered photograph of me as a young gardener. It must have been taken about 1954 and that is the small flower bed at the bottom of the garden in Oaklands Avenue, Halifax. I was given an early introduction to gardening : the couple who lived next door to us ran a flower shop and they gave me a little trowel and fork set for my birthday. I obviously threw myself into the hobby with enthusiasm and I have that look of happy concentration of a seasoned gardener. I must confess - and I realise that this confession will upset a lot of you - that the early exposure to the joy of cultivation has left me with a lifelong aversion to all things to do with the soil, flowers or vegetables (other than the noble potato which I worship with religious fervour). These days, I much prefer to do my digging in the fertile soil of history.

You can see what other people have cultivated for Sepia Saturday this week by visiting the Sepia Saturday Blog and following the various links.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ways Of Getting Out Of Going Shopping No. 1437

I would like to continue with the same theme I initiated yesterday - which, more or less, means that I am going to ramble on again about change whilst I look the wrong way down the telescope of life. As I scan my way through my own chunk of history I came across this view over Elland in West Yorkshire taken from Hullenedge. It is a familiar enough view which I have photographed a number of times in my life, but the question that has occupied me this morning - and, so far, successfully kept me from having to go shopping with my wife - is when was this particular photograph taken?  To answer this question I have to bring all my skills as a digital archaeologist into play (I quite like the idea of a digital archaeologist and, in future, this is what I will reply when people ask that embarrassing question at parties, "and what is it you do?". You know the scenario, you say "Oh, I'm retired" and the look they give you as they go in search of somebody interesting to network with says "oh, you are waiting to die are you")

Where was I? Ah, yes, when was the picture taken? Lovers of Elland - and there are a number of them spread like miser's dripping around the world - will immediately say, it must have been before 1991 as Elland Power Station is still creating steam clouds. They will then quickly counter that it must have been after 1979 because the Calderdale Way By Pass looks as though it has been completed. I suspect it is those three central mill chimneys that are going to be the critical dating factor : only a couple of stumps remain these days. There are people out there who, in order to get out of going shopping with their wives, have made a detailed study of mill chimneys in Elland throughout the ages. I eagerly await one of them contacting me with further information.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Times They Are A-Changing


I was sorting some things out the other day and I came across this old photograph I had taken some twenty or so years ago. It shows my room in the house we lived in back in Sheffield at the beginning of the 1990s. As I looked more and more at the photograph I became aware of how much changes over time. I am writing this sat in an equivalent room 25 years later, but little of what was around then survives to this day.


The box of floppy computer discs probably still exists but I have no use for them now other than as drip mats and coasters. Equally, there is still a box of cassette tapes hanging around in the garage, but I have nothing to play them on. That old framed illustration from a nineteenth century trade union hall eventually faded away into oblivion. The terrapins all died - it is a sad story that I can only retell after the watershed - and the tank gathered slime until it was disposed of. I am not sure what happened to the two printers: my wife tells me I have at least six old printers gathering dust in the garage, but I fear those two examples of the genre are not amongst them. That vast computer monitor - and all of its subsequent sisters, cousins and aunts - was eventually replaced by flat screen devices. The African drum remains unplayed and I am forbidden to touch it by my wife after she read an article about anthrax and traditional drum skins. The enlarger is in bits, no light having shone through its lenses this millennium. The BBC computer remains, preserved in dust sheets and bubble wrap in the hope that I will live long enough for it to be a fitting inheritance to pass on to my son. I would like to say that the chair has survived, but it hasn't. It collapsed under my weight one day back in 2002

There is certainly a great deal of evidence within the photograph that the times, indeed, have been changing. I am seriously tempted to take a photograph of my room today so that someone can look back on it in 25 years time and say, "good gracious, he had one of those iPad things, and what on earth is that vast machine with paper in it?"

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sepia Saturday 220 : Mandelbrot, Drake And A Pram Full Of Posterity


There is a statue theme for Sepia Saturday 220 which, in some ways, should be an easy challenge for me as I have a brother who is a professional sculptor. I don't, however, come from a long line of sculptors and therefore most of my photographs of my brother's work are recent ones. To get the right sepia feel I am going back to the old family albums and to a photograph taken back in the 1930s by my Uncle Frank and it is a photograph he took in Plymouth in Devon.

Anyone familiar with the early days of computing will remember the so-called Mandelbrot Series - that wonderful series of computer generated patterns which you could keep zooming into and discovering new, complex patterns and shapes. I have always thought of old photographs as being a bit like a Mandelbrot Series once you scan them and start examining them in detail. So from the original photograph - which was no larger than 8 x 6 cms - we can zoom in on the figure of that great circumnavigator, Sir Francis Drake.
The statue is based at Plymouth Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound from where he left in 1577 to undertake his famous circumnavigation of the world. It was at the same location he was supposed to have been playing bowls eleven years later when the Spanish Armada was sighted and where he chose to finish his game before sailing off to defeat the Armada.  The sad truth is, however, that it was the weather that defeated the Spaniards and that Drake probably wasn't playing bowls at all.

Photography has the wonderful ability to turn us all into statues. Whereas the sculptor slaves away with chisel and hammer, with stone and with bronze, the photographer has life easy : one click of the button and the subject is captured for posterity (as the younger, lazier brother, perhaps this is why I am happy taking photographs whilst my brother creates bronze statues). So, Uncle Frank not only took a photograph of the statue of Francis Drake, he also took a photograph of some statuesque people who had strayed into the edge of the shot. The inhabitant of that pram may still be walking around this world today, unaware of the fact that there is a statue of them in an old dusty photograph album. And now, visible to the entire world, on the internet.

For more sepia statues, take a look at the Sepia Saturday Blog and follow the various links.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fit And Well And Living In An Age Of Uncertainty

One of the great delights of the World Wide Web at the moment is that it is a job in progress. No doubt the time will come when everything that has ever been written or said or even thought is filed away in some dusty recess of the WWW all perfectly indexed by Googhoo or Yaggle. No longer will you need to dwell on the puzzling mysteries of life such as where did I put the car keys or what was I doing the day Groucho Marx died : you will be able to consult the minute-perfect digital timeline of your life.

Such times are still around the corner and that conglomerate of knowledge/ignorance we call cyberspace still - like a lump of Swiss cheese - has holes in it, and those holes add to the flavour of the dish. They mean that many searches are unrewarded by the quarry you went in search of, but richly rewarded by other things you discover on the way. 

Take, for example, the above, rather sad, newspaper cutting about a lottery in the Yorkshire village of Yeadon. It comes from the Yorkshire Evening Post of Wednesday 18 September 1946 and I came across it whilst doing a search of the splendid British Newspaper Archives. I was looking for a photograph of me, my brother and my father which had been taken a few years later and which, I recall, had been published in the Yorkshire Post. But the scanning of old British newspapers is a painstaking process and, as yet, only seven and a half million pages have been processed. The scanners seem to flit and fly from paper to paper and from time period to time period in a way that, rather pleasingly, builds a refreshing degree of uncertainty into the process. You therefore finish up taking a walk with uncertainty, down a road to who knows where in the land of distractions, and, for me, that makes the journey far more interesting. Lower down the same page an old, half familiar, advertising slogan caught my eye. I suppose you might say, "Uncertainty fortifies the over-forties"

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Antiquarian Gulf Stream Drift


It's funny where things end up. This 1920 postcard to Gladys Dawson who was staying at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth was sent by Billy and Dick (whoever they were). As the postcard both depicts Brighton (the splendid Brighton Marine Palace and Pier) and was posted in the town, we can assume that the aforementioned duo were enjoying the delights of that jewel of the Sussex coast. In that case, what system of cartographical trade winds wafted the card north to end its life in a junk shop in Halifax? Is there some form of antiquarian Gulf Stream drift which means that keepsakes tossed aside in Hove will eventually resurface in Halifax? Or did poor Gladys run short of funds and have to abandon the finery of the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth and return to her terrace house in Brighouse - her stock of memorabilia forming a migratory trail in her wake. Who knows.

The Light Of Flyover, Day And Scanner


A picture I took back in the 1980s of the Burdock Way Flyover in Halifax. I don't think I ever printed the negative at the time - I was probably waiting, as we moved between several houses, for somewhere to set up my enlarger. When we moved into our current house in the mid 1990s there was a dark passage perfect for the task and I moved the enlarger in. But it never got used - by then it was all colour photography and later still it was the start of the digital era. And so the enlarger gathered dust along with a few strips of unprinted negatives, gradually become surrounded and buried by boxes of the detritus of life. That is until that same dark passage got cleared out last week - and the negative strip saw both the light of day and then the light of my scanner. Although I say it myself, I think the image was worth waiting for.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Political Charisma


At a time when it is fashionable to decry all politicians as self-serving villains - an approach which is as dangerous to civil society as it is inaccurate - it is sad to note the passing of Tony Benn, one of the very finest British politicians of his generation. No doubt the right-wing media will today be singing his praises, but I remember Tony Benn from the days where he was being vilified by those same newspapers as an extremist whose views were either bad or mad or more probably both. I met him on a few occasions during the mid 1970s when he was a Government Minister and I was a young apparatchik working at Labour Party headquarters in London. I particularly recall a time in 1975 when he came into our office in search of some Labour Party documentation or other.It was the period just before the referendum on continued membership of the European Union (or Common Market as it then was) and the Party was somehow managing to accommodate both pro and anti EU factions within its ranks. Tony Benn was one of the leaders of the campaign for a "No" vote to continued membership and my boss who sat at the desk opposite me was also a keen opponent of the EU. I, on the other hand, was a enthusiastic supporter of both the EU and continued European unity. After a few words with my boss, he turned to me and asked me for my thoughts on the issue, and I nervously tried to explain my position. Expecting to be either ignored or crushed by his superior debating style, I found myself entranced by a politician who seemed to listen, to consider my views as being equally important as those of a Cabinet colleague, and be capable of taking two apparently conflicting views and moulding them into a synthesis of agreement. It was political skill of the highest order and I became a dedicated disciple of Tony Benn from that day on. He will be missed.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Brief Rest In The Fresh Air Of Nostalgia

In the good old days I could sit in the sun, cassette player to the left, Imperial typewriter to the right, trusty pipe and matches easily to hand and write long-forgotten lectures on Labour Law. A generation of students would half-listen to those lectures whilst thinking about what they would have for tea or where they would head for at the weekend. And over time the details of the Taff Vale dispute or Devonald v Rosser faded and so did the Cyclostyled handouts that listed case after boring case. The students grew up and went on to live their lives, the lecturer grew old and went on to walk the dog, and the hand-outs ...... well they accumulated in his back passage.

Yes, in case you are wondering where I have been, the answer is a simple but distressing one : I have been spending a long time clearing out the accumulated mess of a lifetime of paper. Isobel says that unless progress is made she is going to submit my name to one of those television production companies that make documentaries with titles like "House Hoarders Exposed". A greater threat is provided by the imminent arrival of the decorator which necessitates a rolling programme of de-cluttering. Amongst those boxes of old lecture notes and hand-outs an occasional gem is to be found, such as an old strip of negatives with a picture taken in an Oxford garden in the mid 1980s (I was simply visiting I must add, the lecturing took place amongst the less cloistered quadrangles of South Yorkshire). 

I am allowed a few minutes respite in the fresh air of nostalgia before the Lady Wife calls my name and I have to crawl back into the eaves and fill another rubbish bag with my memories. Take pity on me, dear reader, it is so unfair. You would think there would be a law against it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Say No

On the way to a meeting of the Old Gits Luncheon Club on Friday I spotted this piece of graffiti on a wooden door on the side of the George Hotel in Huddersfield. The Hotel is currently being redeveloped : hopefully when they get around to the side kitchen door and someone says "shall we paint over this", someone else will say no.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

On Discovering A Top Hat And Tails

Uncle Harry has featured a few times on News From Nowhere and I am delighted to announce the discovery of a new photograph which was hidden in a box of old papers that came to light during the excavations up my back passage this week. Harry Moore was born in 1903, so I would imagine that this photograph dates from the early 1930s at a time when he was trying to make a career in entertainment. He married my fathers' sister Annie Elizabeth in 1933 and that event marked the end of his professional stage career, although he worked as a part-time musician right the way through until the 1970s. The recently discovered box is not very big and therefore it is unlikely that the magnificent morning suit and top hat is equally hidden away there. With a family wedding coming up in a few months, that's a pity.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Cocktail Of Printing Ink and Colour Dyes


The Spring Clean of the infamous back passage brought to light a collection of old bus tickets yesterday. I have no idea where they come from although I do recall that Uncle Frank had a collection of vintage tickets so they may be part of that. The delight of the tickets is twofold : first the colours (I think we will get the guest bedroom decorated in a colour to match the 2/4 return from Churchridge Luxury Coaches), and secondly the material. Some are printed on that fine old cardboard that used to be the material of choice for railway tickets and has a feeling of real substance about it. Others are printed on thick paper, the kind you could chew on the way home from school and forever more taste that fine combination of printing ink and colour dyes. Tickets back then were tactile, substantial, capable of being recycled endless times as bookmarks or earwax scrapers. Unlike the squalid thin paper excuses you receive today, when you alighted from the bus you didn't cast them aside like bad administrative memories. You saved them, caressed them, and carefully stored them away as gifts for generations yet to be born.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Return Of The Excavations Up My Back Passage

As that great philosopher Oscar Hammerstein II once wrote, "it might as well be Spring". But is it? It just depends on who you listen to. If you are a Meteorologists, you would say that Spring started on Saturday whereas if you are an Astronomer you would advise waiting a week or two before casting the a seasonal clout. There again, of course, if you are an Australian or a New Zealander, Spring is as far away as a Yorkshire treat. In our household Spring is marked by the Good Lady Wife declaring it is time to de-clutter the house. And that means, once again, it is time to go excavating up my back passage (for those unfamiliar with the internal architecture of our house, the back passage is a low room full of junk that runs under the eaves of the house).

This year, the excavations take on a renewed urgency as The Lad is due to get married in June and the house has to be prepared to receive visitors. Progress in the Great Spring Excavation is painfully slow, however, as each historical find has to be carefully dusted off and recorded. Five minutes work yesterday brought to light a dusty packet of old negatives just begging to be scanned. I limited myself to scanning one and the result is displayed above.

The figure on the right in that wonderful coat is, of course, the very same Good Lady Wife (when she was merely the Good Lady Girlfriend). It must have been taken in about 1970 and it was outside the doors of Halifax Borough Market where the local branch of the Independent Labour Party used to sell newspapers every Saturday. Happy days. Days when the fight for truth, justice and equality loomed just as large as the fight against accumulated dust and rubbish.