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.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Context In Celluloid



As near as I can tell, I took this photograph 50 years ago. It was the Halifax Gala and there were brass bands, high wire acts and nascent pop groups. I know this from the photographs on the same strip of negatives - context in celluloid. But what of the photographer fifty years ago?  Seventeen years old and beginning to find his way around a camera viewfinder. And beginning to find his way around life? I'm not sure I ever have.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Sepia Saturday 295 : A Foggy Day In Yarmouth Town

The theme image for Sepia Saturday 295 features an image of the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales and the suggested themes include bridges, fog and buses. Once I had taken a ride on the sepia bus and the fog had cleared I found myself in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk looking at Breydon Swing Bridge. Not only had I travelled in distance, I had travelled in time as well and I was back in August 1948. Although I was only a couple of months old, I could still appreciate a fine bit of industrial archeology.

The bridge was built in 1899 to take the line of the Midland and Great Northern Railway across Breydon Water at a point close to where the River Bure flows into the River Yare. By the end of the nineteenth century most of the main parts of the British railway network had been in place for at least half a century and the bits of construction that were still taking place were the railway equivalent of dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" (or in this case crossing the Yare!) The lines that were built this late tended to be marginal from both a geographic and an economic point of view and they were often the first to close when, half a century later, the railway age went into decline (the line did indeed close in 1953 and the bridge was demolished a few years later).



The bridge was 800 feet long and consisted of five spans, one of which swung open to allow ships up river and into Breydon Water and from there into the Norfolk Broads. The old postcard (thanks, as ever, to Wikipedia) provides a better view of the entire bridge than the photograph at the top of this post which was taken by the inimitable "Uncle" Frank Fieldhouse. Frank may not have been the best photographer in the world but at least he was a first class cataloguer and therefore we know that his photograph was taken on the 2nd August 1948. And maybe, just maybe, the reason for the somewhat uninspiring photograph was because on that particular date is was a foggy day in Yarmouth town.


For more Sepia Posts catch the bus over the bridge to the Sepia Saturday Blog





Thursday, September 03, 2015

Who On Earth Do You Think You Are?


There is a new series of "Who Do You Think You Are?" running in the UK. When the programme first started it would delve into the general family history of celebrities, but as it has developed over the years it has tended to concentrate on telling the story of individual ancestors who have a particularly interesting tale to tell. And as you watch the programmes you find yourself asking the question - if I ever became a celebrity and if I ever featured on the programme, which particular ancestor of mine would they come up with who had an exciting story to tell? There might be the tale of Annie Moore and the blackout, but you couldn't tell that before the watershed. They might dig around into the curious history of Fowler Beanland but not find enough to even entertain an old-folks tea party on a wet Tuesday afternoon. However, this question finally got an answer the other day when Ancestry came up with a new family tree hint regarding my mothers' cousin.

Before this week all I knew was that my mother, Gladys, had a cousin she was particularly fond of who served in the Merchant Navy. There was a story about him having died during World War II, but no other details than that. I didn't even have a definite name, other than the fact that he was called Wyatt and was the son of my grandma's sister. And then the story of Harold Alfred Wyatt emerged.

Harold Alfred Wyatt was born in either 1902 or 1912 (the records are confusing) in Newport, Monmouthshire, the son of George Wyatt and Mary Ann Kellam (Mary Ann was the sister of my grandmother, Kate Kellam). He joined the Merchant Navy and I am fairly certain that he is the young man on the right of the photograph at the top of this post which was part of my mothers' collection of family photographs. The new hint provided by Ancestry provides me with a later photograph (the bearded seaman with the pipe) and the tragic story of his end.

In 1941 he was serving as Boatswain on the SS Rio Azul, a cargo boat involved in the perilous Atlantic crossings. On the 29th June his ship was attacked and sunk by a German U Boat 200 miles southeast of the Azures and most of the crew were lost. 18 crew members, including Harold, managed to get to a life raft in which they drifted at sea for 15 days with no food and only a small glass jar of water. Using an empty tobacco tin, Harold managed to fashion a mirror which he used to reflect the rays of the sun and eventually attract the attention of a passing ship and the few remaining members of the crew were rescued in a state of near starvation. Most, including Harold, died shortly after being rescued. Harold Alfred Wyatt was posthumously awarded the Lloyds Medal for Bravery at sea - the Merchant Navy's equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

You have to admit that it is quite a story and one worthy of an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" I would be proud to be associated with someone as courageous as Cousin Harold. But I rather suspect - if ever I did become famous and appear on  "Who Do You Think ..", they would go with the story of Uncle Harry and the Pierrot Show and that is something I might be better forgetting about.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Enough For A Shelf-Full Of Wordy Books


I have been amusing myself on a damp Bank Holiday Monday by re-arranging the books on my bookshelves. Every so often I move a whole batch of books to the shelves hidden behind the settee in order to make room for books that better match my current interests. Over the years, wave after wave of text books, outdated novels and forgotten biographies have taken this route to comparative obscurity, only to be replaced by whatever happens to be my literary flavour of the month. And looking at the latest migratory pattern, it would appear that in my dotage I am returning to the obsession with picture books that characterised my first few years.

More and more of my "current" batch of books seem to be picture books - collections of old photographs from here, there and all places in-between. Images seem to say so much more than words can describe, offer so many more possibilities, tell so many different stories. The picture featured here is not from one of my books, but from one or other of the collections of old photographs I have accumulated over recent years. One simple photograph, scanned, dissected, and reconstructed providing a framework upon which you can build whatever you like.


Who are these women with such satisfied smiles? Part of that generation that lost the men in their lives to the mud of Flanders? Smiling for what might have been rather than for what was.


Look behind the smiles and what do you find? What secrets, what hopes and what fears? And what was this day at the seaside a break from? 


And the lone man. face half hidden by a wooden cap. What do you read in his face. With just a little imagination there is enough there for a shelf-full of wordy books.