Friday, March 31, 2017

Calling The Shots In The Devil's Cauldron

This short strip of three old negatives floated to the top of my scan pile last night. They date back fifty years to a time when my brother and I were planning a photographic essay which had the wonderful working title: "Halifax - Devil's Cauldron Or Cradle Of The Arts". The photograph on the left shows Godley Cutting, whilst the one on the bottom right is of the old Halifax Gas Works and North Bridge sidings. The third photograph shows the joint authors of this essay that never saw completion. I think we were on one of the hills overlooking the Shibden Valley and hidden somewhere in the grass is a shutter cable-release. No doubt before the sun has set over Dominica, my brother will add a comment to point out that the photographs were taken in Cleethorpes whilst we were selling sea-shells. But, my dear boy, as someone once probably said, "he who writes history gets to call the shots".

Thursday, March 30, 2017

News From Yesterday : Beer, Chips And Elastic Bands

News From Yesterday
Huddersfield Daily Examiner 30 March 1917

They did awful things with beer supply during the First World War. They introduced licensing hours to control when people could drink it, they nationalised a brewery to control how it was produced; and when all else failed, they doubled the price of it so people couldn't afford it.

Doubling the price of beer may sound like a bad dream, but doubling beer prices whilst there is a severe shortage of potatoes is the stuff of nightmares. Cauliflowers and Swedes I can well live without - indeed I have done so with no harmful effects for almost seventy years - but potatoes, in the form of chips and crisps, are essential, to not only my life, but the life of any sane human being.

The Omnibus Man-Catcher must count as one of the great missed opportunities of modern times. Forget inflatable bags and strengthened steel cages, a large elastic band stretched in front of vehicles to gently catapult them out of danger on busy roads is an ideal solution to the challenges of road safety. In this age of driverless vehicles, perhaps it is time to return to this idea.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

An Open Letter To Mrs Marshall

Dear Mrs Marshall,

You may not remember me. My Auntie Annie and Uncle Harry used to live next door to you when you lived in the village of Northowram a long, long time ago. It was the summer of 1966. Wild Thing by The Troggs was top of the hit parade and we were all queueing up at the cinema to see Michael Caine in Alfie. It was the summer of love and peace, the summer we marched to Grosvenor Square chanting anti-Vietnam War slogans. It was the summer that Sheffield Wednesday gave away a two goal lead in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. A long, long time ago.

It was the summer before I left school and my course in life was already charted. I was going to become a press photographer for the local newspaper and the Picture Editor had suggested that I get in some practice by taking photographs at local events. Your granddaughter (or was it your grandson) was going to appear in the local village fete and you commissioned me to take photographs of the event. I seem to remember that the fee for the job was going to be half a crown.

I went along to the field behind the church where the event was taking place and took loads of photograph because, if truth be told, I could not work out which was the child in question. I developed the film in my little home darkroom in the cellar under my parent's house. There were some nice photographs which, I thought, captured the spirit of the event.

But then something intervened. Perhaps it was politics. Perhaps it was a girl. Perhaps it was the discovery of beer. I never delivered on my promise. I never printed the negatives. And before I knew it the world had changed. The local newspaper closed down. I became redundant before I started work. My interests shifted elsewhere - to politics, to girls, to beer. The strip of negatives got filed away and forgotten about. Until last night when I was scanning for memories.

So here they are, the photographs I promised you. I am well aware that the grandchild in question will probably be a grandparent themselves by now. But, as they say, better late than never.


P.S. Do I still get the half a crown?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Sad Tale (And The Even Sadder Tail) Of The Hartlepool Monkey

"Do you know about the Hartlepool Monkey?",  Jack asked me in the pub the other evening. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, there was some kind of memory - didn't the people of Hartlepool elect a monkey as mayor several years ago? - so I said yes and was handed an old postcard which set out the ancient, and rather brutal, legend of the monkey that was hung by the fishermen of Hartlepool because they thought it might be a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars. At the height of the wars, when there was a great fear of a French invasion, it appears that a French ship was wrecked in a storm off the Hartlepool coast. The only survivor of the wreck was the ship's pet monkey which had been dressed in a military style uniform. The fishermen became convinced that the monkey was a spy and held a trial on the beach and the poor creature was sentenced to be hung.

Two verses of the longer ballad about the affair of the Hartlepool monkey are printed on the card. Here is the first verse - which isn't on the card - and which provides some context for this infamous miscarriage of justice. I should point out - in the manner of a TV announcer - that readers may find some of this material distressing.

"In former times, when war and strife ,
The French invasion threaten’d life
An’ all was armed to the knife
The Fisherman hung the monkey O !

The Fishermen with courage high,
Siezed on the monkey for a French spy;
“Hang him !” says one; “he’s to die”
They did and they hung the monkey Oh!
They tried every means to make him speak
And tortured the monkey till loud he did speak;
Says yen “thats french” says another “its Greek”
For the fishermen had got druncky oh!

The story is, of course, nothing but a myth (albeit a powerful myth; the good folk of Hartlepool did indeed elect a man dressed as a monkey their Mayor some years ago) and I am glad to say that no monkeys were hurt in the production of the original card nor in my retelling of the story here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Hieroglyphics Of A Publishing Revolution

For the last couple of weeks I seem to have been here, there and everywhere and had little time for catching my thoughts. Wielding my cognitive butterfly net this morning has produced the following specimens for sharing.

One of the places high up on the "there" list was a visit to Oxford and to the wonderful Ashmolean Museum. We decided to adopt the "top ten must see" approach to a task that otherwise could take weeks, and progressed from gallery to gallery in search of the rising stars of art and archeology. I well remember pausing at the nested coffins of Djeddjehutyiuefankh (as one does) and thinking about the clear similarities between ancient hieroglyphics and  modern emojis. There was a translation of some of the sarcophagus symbols next to the exhibit, and a very pleasant and knowledgeable guide who spoke about them at length; but at the end of the day they boiled down to something like "when I get to the after-life I am looking forward to a pint of beer and a bacon sandwich".  In modern terms this sentiment would look something like this:

and I am determined to leave instructions to have it imprinted on the side of my coffin when the time comes.

Still in Oxford, we visited one of my favourite bookshops in the world, Blackwell's. The link between images and words has dominated my thoughts a lot during the last few years and I was wanting to see how this relationship was reflected in the vast stock of books throughout the store. I suspect that traditional physical books full of words are rapidly becoming, like vinyl records, a niche market, in this age of the far more convenient electronic e-readers. Kindles - and their like - can conveniently deliver a library of books to your back pocket, but they have the formatting skills of a garden slug. They can cope with the complete works of Shakespeare with ease, but if you want a picture of Macbeth's wife they start to panic. At best the picture will be grainy, monochrome and in the wrong place. For frolicking along the shoreline where text and image combine to produce something which is a pleasure to look at as well as read, you can't beat a physical book.  I was keen to see how such trends were reflected in the books available in Blackwell's, and it didn't take me long to discover a perfect example of what I mean in the form of a "book" called Revolution by Philip Parker. The book itself contains no more than sixty pages and more than half of those are occupied by well chosen, and well-reproduced, illustrations. But that is only the start of things: the book also contains three bags, or folders, full of carefully reproduced source documents. Thus whilst reading of Russian Revolution and looking at some fine reproductions of contemporary photographs, you can handle a perfect facsimile of Tsar Nicholas's abdication proclamation. Try doing that with you Kindle!

Perhaps those old Egyptian kings and queens had the right idea after all. Why limit yourself to words when you can bring words and pictures together in perfect harmony.

Monday, March 20, 2017

It's Not Over Until The Fattish Lady Signs Her Autograph

I'm fat - I won't deny it. I'm not particularly proud of it, but I acknowledge that if you were describing my physical appearance to a third party who hadn't met me, the term "fat" might be a useful addition to your descriptive vocabulary. If push came to shove, I suspect I would prefer the term "fattish" as that conveys a spectrum upon which I stand (or more likely, upon which I sit and eat a bag of crisps), but if you were to fall back on fat, I confess I would be bang to rights.

All this means that I think I am well within my rights to describe the lady who is the subject of this Victorian Cabinet Card as being fat. I could be wrong - it's been known - and it may be that the Victorian dress she is wearing might cover - in yards and yards of black crepe and countless undergarments of unimaginable description - a figure that is as skinny as a lettuce leaf between two slices of rye bread. Let us just agree that she is towards the fattish end of the spectrum.

The photograph is the work of the Victorian photographer, Walter George Lewis. Lewis had his studio at 1 and 2 Seymour Street in the ancient city of Bath and seems to have been active in the profession from the early days of the studio photography boom in the late 1860s through until the first decade of the twentieth century. It would appear that he made a good living as a photographer; by the time of the 1911 census he was retired and living in Norfolk Crescent - one of the most desirable Georgian crescents in the city. It is unclear as to where his skills as a "photographic artist" came from; his father was charmingly listed as being a "turn cock to Bath Water Works" in the 1851 census.

At first I was a little intrigued by the unusual reverse of the Cabinet Card with what appears to be a folded piece of paper covering most of the traditional arts and crafts design that photographic studios at this time were so fond of. Once scanned and enlarged, however, I noticed the explanation - "space for Autograph" which is a lovely touch. Sadly the fattish lady didn't add her autograph, and so we are left not knowing who she was and whether, like me, she had a voracious appetite for potato crisps.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Run In The Rain With Elizabeth Taylor

Most northern towns and cities have a municipal park a little like the one illustrated in this old picture postcard of Hull. Grand gates, parallel paths, fine prospects of a municipal drinking fountain - all are key elements of any corporation park. Interesting as the view is, it is the message on the reverse which intrigues me.

The card is addressed to Miss E Taylor at a Children's Outfitter shop in Crook, County Durham. The date appears to be the 8th June 1910, but the only E Taylor I can find at that address at the time is a five year old girl called Elizabeth. The message is as follows:-

We arrived safely after a very wet journey- rain all the way to York. Please to say we are no worse for the experience and trust that you did not take cold. We hope the next run you have will be much pleasanter. We also hope Mrs W is still improving and that all the rest of you are keeping well. Kind love to all. AK

One phrase stood out when I first read the message - "we hope the next run you have will be much pleasanter".  Even when I was young, trips out in a motor car would be referred to as "a run". And given that the journey from Durham down to Hull had left the writer "very wet", we can only assume it was undertaken in an open-top motor car. Let us hope the trip out in the rain didn't put young Miss Taylor off motor travel for the rest of her life.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Sepia Saturday 358 : Radio Waves

Photography is always celebrated for its ability to "capture memories", but there is a problem for those of us involved in the memory apprehension business - memories, by definition, develop after the event, whilst photographs have to be taken whilst the event is in progress. One way around this would be the development of a "retrospective memory camera" capable of going back in time and capturing a decent large format jpeg image of something that occurred long ago; but whilst such cameras are no doubt in development in some recess of Silicon Valley, it will be well after the lifetime of my memory when they become available on Amazon Prime.  This means that we photographers are stuck with having to try and guess what might be memories in the future and capture and store them now - just in case. 

Take, for example, the radio: which is a topic I turned my attention to after a radio made an appearance in this week's Sepia Saturday prompt. Having lived most of my life in the twentieth century, radios have always been an important part of my life. I dare say that I could make a decent stab at a short autobiography entitled "My Life In Twenty Radios", because different radios have punctuated my life like a series of AM/FM punctuation marks. The only problem I would have with such an undertaking would be to find a suitable picture for the front cover.

Radios may have been central to my life, but they always tend to be peripheral to my photographs. I can think back to the first radio I became familiar with - an enormous wooden "radiogram" that could still play 78rpm records and had long-wave stations like Velthem, Munchen and Stavanger - but unfortunately my thoughts cannot rely on a supporting image.

When I became a teenager, my parents bought be a Japanese transistor radio and for many years it was my prize possession.  I would walk with it, eat with it and sleep with it: we were inseparable - whilst I fought the ravages of teenage acne, it valiantly attempting to connect with the waves emanating from Radio Luxembourg. But whilst I have endless photographs of my first girlfriends, my fathers' cars, and even the neighbours cat - I have no surviving photograph of that beloved transistor radio.

I recall later radios - wood and plastic affairs with chunky push buttons and circular dials - but if these survive in the photographic record, it is merely because they sneaked their way into a photograph by virtue of a lens that was a little too wide-angled. 

Most of all, I remember a wonderful old Bakelite radio that I bought for ten bob in a junk shop and became my constant companion whilst I was away at College and University. I was convinced that I had a photograph of that somewhere - to such an extent that I spent a couple of hours this morning going through my entire negative archives in search of it. I couldn't find it because I doubt that it exists - it is merely a photograph that, in retrospect, I wish I had taken. To see it you will have to be patient and await the development of the Retrospective Memory Camera.

To see more captured memories based on this weeks theme image go to the Sepia Saturday Blog and follow the links.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Joy Of Tripe Dressing

A man makes his way across the tap room of a crowded pub and surreptitiously slips you a little package containing a dirty postcard. You glance at it, not wanting to draw attention to the exchange, and give a brief nod of understanding and thanks. You carefully place it in your inside pocket, longing for the time to pass until you can make your way to the privacy of your own home and examine the picture in detail. There you can let your eye explore the lines and the curves, the meaning and the promise of that glorious image. There you can feast on the whole and consume each individual part as though it was the rarest of rare beasts. There you can let the joy of that unforgettable phrase - etched in glass high above a window - echo through the various levels of your consciousness : "J. A Binns - Wholesale And Retail Tripe Dresser".  Thanks Jack.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Let's Hear It For My New Ear

This may not seem like a particularly important photograph to you. It is simply an old man with white hair and a bit of a silly grin on his face. But look closely, and what do you see? Nothing! Precisely,  For the first time in thirty-odd years there is nothing lodged behind his ear; no wires dangling here and there, no visible signs of his undoubted disability. It is the new me with my new hidden speech processor.

The first speech processor I had some twenty years ago was a plastic box of batteries, computers and wires that attached to my belt and which was inked by wire to a microphone lodged behind my ear. Over the years the speech processors have got smaller and smaller and the software programmes within them have got cleverer and cleverer. My latest processor is just a little larger than a 50 pence piece and sits under my hair on the side of my head. It has programmes within it that constantly monitor the sound around me, decide what is background noise and reduce it in volume thus allowing me to concentrate on important stuff like listening to the latest episode of The Archers.

Since I was given the new processor last Thursday I have been slowly getting used to it. It is difficult to explain how a completely new sensory devise shifts everything a little: things sound a tiny bit different, your hearing works in a marginally different way, and there are new buttons and switches and programmes to get used to. Here are just a few things I have discovered in the few days since I received my Cochlear Nucleus Kanso processor.

- The biggest fear with a device so small which is only attached to you by a magnet, is that it will fall off at some inappropriate moment such as when you are walking past a drain or when the dog is feeling particularly hungry. I could get a stronger magnet, but the danger with that is that over time it will wear through the skin and my brains will leak out.

- If I shake my head too vigorously the implant has a tendency to fly off, therefore I am trying to avoid situations where I need to express indignant disagreement. All statements about how wonderful life outside the European Union is bound to be for Britain are now met by me with a pitying scowl.

- Whilst a hat remains an implant wearers best friend, extra care has to be taken when putting them on and taking them off to avoid casting your ear into space. The best solution I have discovered is a significant bowing of the head before taking your hat off so if the processor falls off it will fall off into the waiting hat. This makes it look as though I have just met a member of the royal family and I am undertaking a particularly obsequious bow.

- The bluetooth connectivity means that I can now walk the dog and have music streamed straight to my brain. Whilst we are used to meeting walkers and joggers seemingly singing and talking to themselves as they pound the streets, we can usually check their sanity by searching for the tell-tale speaker buds in their ears and cables to their smart phones. No such evidence is available in my case and therefore people are left to draw their own conclusions about my sanity.

- One clever attachment (the phone clip) allows me to voice dial on my mobile phone, but the sensitivity of the necessary command takes a bit of getting used to.  Yesterday whilst out walking I sneezed and phoned a friend.

I am sure I will quickly get used to all aspects of my new ear and start to take it for granted. What I will never take for granted is the brilliance of the scientists who designed and developed the technology, the skill and dedication of the medical team that fitted and maintains my implant, and the fabulous National Health Service that made it all possible for me. Let's hear it for all of them.

Not Seeing The Moores For The Trees

This family photograph from the 1930s perfectly captures a marriage of style and elegance. It also captures a marriage between two people, b...